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Minnesota Hockey: Gophers overcome early deficit in 6-4 win, sweep Wisconsin

Minnesota’s three goals late in the first period shifted the momentum into their favor

University of Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Gophers men’s hockey team scored six goals in five minutes and 53 seconds across two periods en route to their 6-4 win over the Wisconsin Badgers at 3M Arena at Mariucci on Saturday night, completing the sweep.

The turn of events mirrored the game against the University of North Dakota where the Fighting Hawks scored four times in just under four minutes against the Gophers in late October after a series of penalties.

It was a controversial call this time around that completely changed the momentum of the game. The Badgers’ Charlie Stramel received a game misconduct and five minute penalty for a headbutt on Gophers captain Brock Faber, who received a two minute minor penalty on the play for roughing.

It was a controversial play to say the least with Faber tugging on his jersey and pulling him in. The Gophers were bottled up in their own zone early and hadn’t generated much before that point aside from Connor Kurth’s breakaway and Jaxon Nelson’s partial breakaway that were both stopped by Kyle McClellan as well as a chance in tight for Jimmy Snuggerud.

Wisconsin had a 2-0 lead and the edge in play up to that point before momentum shifted into the Gophers favor.

“Wisconsin, as we all could predict, being in this for so long, came out with thunder to start, and we were waiting around to get going,” Gophers head coach Bob Motzko said. “It took a break for it to happen and then when we woke up, we got going and then it turned out to be a pretty good hockey game, but a lot of craziness in that first period.”

The Gophers cut the lead in half with a 4-on-4 goal from Rhett Pitlick after a filthy pass from Cal Thomas.

Pitlick is up to eight goals and 13 points, and that was Thomas’ third point on the year to get the Gophers within a goal.

Then 28 seconds later when Faber’s penalty expired and the Gophers were on the power play, Jaxon Nelson had the puck from a battle along the boards and found Snuggerud, who displayed his wicked release for his team-leading 12th goal of the season.

Snuggerud, the first star of the game, extended his point streak to eight games with the goal. The 18-year-old St. Louis Blues prospect has 27 points on the year, which is good for sole possession of first place in Big Ten scoring and second in NCAA scoring behind Western Michigan’s Ryan McAllister.

The Gophers didn’t settle with erasing the two-goal deficit as Luke Mittelstadt shot the puck past McClellan high blocker for a buzzer beater goal to end the first period.

That was Mittelstadt’s second goal of the season and 13th point of the season. During the first intermission, after taking their first lead of the night, Thomas said they talked in the locker room about making smarter plays and puck possession.

To open the second period, Mason Nevers deflected Mike Koster’s shot from the point in the slot for his eighth goal of the season and the Gophers’ third power play goal of the game — all during that five minute major.

It was a four goal swing.

Then Connor Kurth scored from behind the goal line three minutes into the second period to make it a 5-2 game, which ended McClellan’s night. Logan Cooley made sure to get in on the scoring surge, beating Jared Moe glove side from in tight after a pass from Knies a few feet away in the low slot.

Six goals in less than six minutes.

“We had some pretty nice goals that are pretty hard to defend,” Motzko said. “So you give our skill some credit tonight.”

But Wisconsin got some life with two early goals in the third period to cut the lead in half, but the Gophers managed to hold on. Motzko said he wants a “non-eventful” third period, but they “just can’t seem to find one.”

“We have big expectations for ourselves, and we’ve seen how good we can be when we play the right way, so I think we just want to do that every time we step out on the ice,” Thomas said about Motzko wanting improvement in some areas despite scoring 13 goals.

Even though Justen Close allowed four goals and wasn’t as sharp, he made some big-time saves, including a breakaway in the third period.

Knies, Koster and Mittelstadt had two point nights for the Gophers, who now have an eight point lead in the Big Ten over second-place Penn State.

“I think the biggest thing is we feel pretty good about ourselves going into break, but we still see our potential, and we see we still have a lot of stuff to work on...,” Koster said.

The Gophers head into break with a 15-5 record overall and 10-2 record in Big Ten play. They’ll play the U.S. National Development U-18 Team on Dec. 29 before an exhibition matchup with Bemidji State on Dec. 31.

“I thought it was a tremendous first half for us,” Motzko said. “We grew immensely from the start to this point. We’re halfway up a mountain, but we got the tough half to go, but we’re on solid ground right now.”