MINNEAPOLIS — Even though the No. 1 ranked Minnesota Gophers hockey team fired shots left and right and controlled play, it took overtime to get past the No. 7 ranked North Dakota Fighting Hawks in Friday night’s non-conference matchup at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
It was a fast-paced, physical game through regulation, just as expected in a rivalry game like this. Heading into overtime, Gophers head coach Bob Motzko said the message was clear: “Don’t screw up.”
With the puck on his stick in the right circle, Matthew Knies beat Fighting Hawks’ defensemen Chris Jandric to the net, went back to his forehand and shot it past Drew DeRidder as he fell to the ice, completing the comeback for the Gophers.
“I wanted to score so bad,” Knies said of the overtime winner. “I had those chances all game long, just happy it went in and we could win that game. ... It feels good to be in our home barn and obviously it’s such a big rivalry, so to get that goal is definitely special for me.”
Added Motzko: “Usually you wait for a mistake (in overtime), but the big fella decided to take it into his own hands.”
Knies replaced Pitlick on a line with freshman Logan Cooley and Jimmy Snuggerud. The trio combined for seven shots, including when Cooley hit the post on the power play midway through the third period. The line also created a lot of offense but just couldn’t find the back of the net in regulation. Motzko expects the line to be better tomorrow.
It was Knies’ third goal and fifth point so far in the 2022-23 campaign. The Gophers improve to 4-1 on the season and remain undefeated at home after also beating Minnesota State Mankato two weeks ago and Lindenwood in the season-opening series.
The Gophers forced overtime thanks to Mason Nevers’ game-tying, extra attacker goal with 1:24 left in the game.
IT'S LOUD IN HERE pic.twitter.com/YT0usI81Rx— Minnesota Men’s Hockey (@GopherHockey) October 22, 2022
Coming off the bench as an extra attacker, Nevers fired the puck from the slot and it found an opening under DeRidder’s arm and into the back of the net.
“Nevers was our best player tonight, just working his tail off,” Motzko said. “Reward him putting him out there, and he scores right away. I couldn’t be happier...there’s an upperclassmen stepping up.”
Nevers, who had five shots on the night, has three points, 13 shots and is a +3 through five games.
“He’s just a workhorse, always battling for pucks in front of the net, and he’s always in the best position, plays power play, penalty kill,” Knies said. “I think he’s definitely shown that’s he’s a leader on this team and he’s such a valuable component to this win.”
The Gophers created a ton of scoring chances in the third period with 14 shots and 26 shot attempts.
“I think we just had a lot of momentum going into (the final two minutes)...as we mature as a team, I think just being in those moments we’re more comfortable, and I think it kind of showed out there tonight,” LaCombe said.
The Gophers needed some late game magic because DeRidder, a transfer from Michigan State, kept North Dakota in the game all night long with his steady play in the crease. He finished the night with 35 saves for a .921 save percentage.
Although the Gophers were shooting wide way too often and started the slow right out of the gate, they were poised to breakthrough eventually with how much they were peppering DeRidder.
The Gophers outshot the Fighting Hawks 38-18 and held a 69-36 advantage in the shot attempts department.
While that’s true, North Dakota still played well. In addition to DeRidder, their physicality and work on the boards helped them sustain their lead for much of the first two periods.
So give credit where credit is due. North Dakota played their game plan to a tee for the most part and were close to taking down the No. 1 ranked Gophers.
“I thought North Dakota played great,” Motzko said. “They played just the way they want to play, but we weathered the storm.”
The Fighting Hawks 1-0 lead was snapped when Jackson LaCombe finally helped the Gophers breakthrough against DeRidder.
Comber will just right down there pic.twitter.com/DBE8XO0VrZ— Minnesota Men’s Hockey (@GopherHockey) October 22, 2022
“He’s been lights out this year,” Knies said of LaCombe. “He’s been incredible. For him to score that goal was huge for the guys, and I’m just happy he could get one there.”
The 21-year-old found space, cut across and skated with ease to the net where he threw a backhander past DeRidder blocker side.
“It felt good to kind of come around there, I like going down low, so just kind of try to get a shot at the net and that’s what happened,” LaCombe said about his offensive instincts coming back from when he was a forward.
North Dakota scored less than a minute later, taking a 2-1 lead into the third period. But the Gophers stuck with it in a game where Motzko liked how they played and how the defense performed, especially breaking the puck out in the final two periods.
But one aspect Minnesota needs to improve in is their net front presence and increasing traffic to make life more difficult in the crease for the opposing goalie. And Motzko admitted they were a little rusty coming off the bye week, and they’re still trying to force things.
With that said, the game lived up to its expectations in the highly-anticipated hard-hitting rivalry game with the attendance at 10,418 — the seventh highest in Gophers history.
“This is what we want to build here,” Knies said of the atmosphere. “That kind of culture, that kind of atmosphere. I think it’s turning in the right direction for Gopher hockey. I think it’s only going to get better.”