Thanks to 76 saves on 78 shots by Mat Robson and Blake McLaughlin’s first two goals in the maroon and gold, the Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey team earned a huge Big Ten road sweep at Notre Dame Fighting Irish this past weekend. The sweep puts Minnesota in sole position of second place in the Big Ten half way through the conference season.
The Gophers were a bit tentative to get going early in Friday night’s opener. Notre Dame definitely controlled the pace of play early in the game, but Robson was up to every challenge the Irish threw at him. Notre Dame outshot the Gophers 13-5 after the first period, but because of Robson the game remained scoreless after one.
In the second period the Gophers began to find their legs. Tommy Novak would finally snap a 29 game goalless streak by ripping a one-timer pass from Brannon McManus past Irish goalie Cale Morris for his first goal of the year. It would be the lone goal of the second period as the teams went to break with the Gophers holding a 1-0 lead.
Then, in the third period all broke loose. Minnesota would score four goals in 11 minutes to break the game completely open. McLaughlin scored his first goal as a Gopher off a nice feed from Nathan Burke 5:35 into the third period to make it a 2-0 game.
McManus would get rewarded with a nice pass from Sampo Ranta to make it 3-0 Minnesota three minutes later. Ranta intercepted the puck in the neutral zone and rushed down the right side before finding McManus for the snap shot goal.
Sammy Walker made it 4-0 a bit later on an absolutely gorgeous pass from McLaughlin to the front of the net. A year after giving up only four goals to the Gophers in four games, Morris had given up four in less than three periods.
Eden Prairie native Nick Leivermann cut the Gopher lead to 4-1 with just over three minutes to play to give the Irish a hint of life, but Rem Pitlick would add an empty net goal as the final nail in the coffin of a huge 5-1 Gopher win.
Saturday night the two teams met again—the Gophers looking for their first sweep of the 2018-19 season and the Irish trying to salvage the weekend. The Irish would jump out in front early in this one as Jack Jenkins would score 7:29 into the first period to give Notre Dame a 1-0 lead after one period of play. The Gophers would get on the board 10:47 into the second period when McManus got his second goal of the weekend. He tipped in a Tyler Sheehy power-play blast and the game was tied at 1, and would stay that way until the waning seconds of the game.
The game appeared headed to overtime until McLaughlin struck again. Notre Dame made one last rush with about 15 seconds left in regulation. They got the puck into the Gopher end where it was knocked loose right onto Sheehy’s stick. He made a gorgeous outlet pass to McLaughlin who entered the Irish zone with a step on the defender. Pitlick trailed to give the Gophers a 2-on-1 but McLaughlin didn’t look for the pass and went to his backhand and slid a shot under Irish goalie Dylan St. Cyr’s blocker and into the corner of the net with 7.8 seconds left to give the Gophers a huge win, and a huge road sweep. His second career goal, and his second game winning goal of the weekend.
When the Big Ten weekly awards come out on Tuesday, expect to see both Robson and McLaughlin honored. Minnesota is now in second place in the Big Ten standings with 21 points. They trail Ohio State by two points—the difference in their two double OT losses to the Buckeyes at Mariucci in December. Minnesota leads third place Michigan by three points, but have a game in hand on the Wolverines. It is a long jam in the standings as Penn State, Wisconsin and Notre Dame come in at fourth through sixth but are just points behind the Wolverines. Michigan State brings up the bottom of the standings with 13 points.
Those Spartans are the Gophers next opponents as Minnesota will head to East Lansing for a Saturday/Sunday afternoon series this weekend. Face-off is at 4:30 Saturday and 4:00 Sunday with both games airing live on BTN.