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Gophers Look Sharp After Layoff, Top Niagara 5-1

Gophers Look Sharp After Layoff, Top Niagara 5-1

Zach Budish scores a power play goal in the 3rd period against Niagara.
Photo by: Craig Cotner
Despite not having played for three weeks, the Gophers got back into the swing of things nicely on Friday night as they upended Niagara by a 5-1 score to advance the championship game of the Mariucci Classic where they will take on Northeastern, who tied Princeton 3-3 earlier in the day but won the shootout to advance to the title game.

Even though Niagara (5-6-6) isn’t one of the nation's top teams or close to it, scoring five times without leading goal-scorers Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau in the lineup is a great sign. Those two average roughly a goal and a half per game, so replacing their offense is paramount for this weekend with that duo playing for the United States in the World Junior Championships.

“To win 5-1 like that, and to outshoot and out-compete your opponent like that after 20 days off, you can’t really ask for much more than that,” said senior Jake Hansen, who had three points on the night.

“We got off to a great start, and that’s something we talked about wanting to do,” said head coach Don Lucia. “The emphasis was shooting pucks and getting to the net and scoring some blue-paint and rebound goals.”

And as Lucia later pointed out, the team first two goals were exactly like that. The Gophers got on the board first thanks to a head’s up play by defenseman Nate Schmidt, who pinched in near the boards just above the hash marks to keep the play alive. He fired a shot on net that caromed out to his defensive partner, Jake Parenteau, who hammered a shot of his own on net. Senior Nick Larson was there to knock home the rebound to make it 1-0 Gophers just 1:58 into the contest.

Minnesota’s defense would again play a key role in the team’s second goal of the night, which came just over a minute later. Junior Seth Helgeson started the rush out of the Gopher zone, which sprung his teammates on a four-on-three rush. Sam Warning fired the shot on net and Hansen was there to pick up the rebound to make it 2-0 at 3:06 of the first period.

As expected, the Gophers controlled the play during the second period, but were unable to build on their lead until the 15:39 mark, which is when sophomore Erik Haula finished off a great shift by the team’s fourth line with his tenth tally of the season. And with less than a minute to go in the period, defenseman Justin Holl would be the beneficiary of a crisp cross-ice passing play by Haula and Hansen. Holl found himself alone at the top of the crease and had no problem tapping in his third goal of the season to make it 4-0 at 19:31.

Niagara would break up Kent Patterson’s shutout bid early in the third period, as Tyler Matthews beat the senior netminder with a high shot on the short side at 2:23 of the third. It was a shot that Patterson saves nine times out of ten, but this one got by him to make it 4-1.

However, the game was never really in doubt the rest of the way, and the Gopher power play iced the game thanks to another beautiful passing play. Hansen and Sam Warning got the helpers on Zach Budish’s fifth goal of the season at 13:21 to put the Gophers ahead by four goals.

Lucia and the players all seemed, as you’d expect, to be excited to be back playing games again after the long layoff, and they were all happy to get the second-half off on the right foot.

“We had the ten straight weeks the first half without a break, and I thought we had a pretty crisp week of practice when they came back,” Lucia said. “They were excited to play. It was a good solid team effort tonight.”

The Gophers ended the game with 43 shots to Niagara's 21.

Without Bjugstad and Rau, the defacto top line was Warning, Haula, and Hansen, that those three -- who clicked nicely during the star of the season but have cooled as of late -- combined for two goals and five assists on the night. Lucia specifically mentioned Warning's play as being some of his best since the first month of the season. Schmidt finished with two assists to bump his team-leading total to 22. And Budish, who had just the one point on the night with his power play goal, really controlled the play along the wall all night long and played one of his best games of the season.

Of note, Gopher forward Tom Serratore, who usually is the one dishing out big hits, took a clean shot from Niagara’s Matt Williams early in the first period. He finished out the period but wasn’t on the bench as the second period began. Lucia said after the game that he was injured during the first period and his status for Saturday’s game was up in the air, though he didn't confirm if it came on the big hit he took or not.

After the game, all of the players who spoke to the media touched on that fact the coaching staff stressed these games this weekend were very important for the PairWise Rankings. The Gophers are now 4-2-1 in non-conference games, and have two left: Saturday vs. Northeastern and next Saturday vs. Notre Dame. The non-conference component is key in determining the PairWise Rankings, so getting two more wins in the team’s next two games could go a long way to locking them into a spot in the NCAA Tournament come March.

As Hansen and others pointed out after the game, Northeastern is rolling right now: their last loss was on Nov. 12 and since then, they’ve won once at Michigan and swept Notre Dame on the road by a combined score of 11-3, so the title game on Saturday will be a tough test for a depleted Gopher team.

The championship game gets underway at 6 p.m. and, like Friday, the game will not be televised.

Post Game video of Jake Hansen and Nate Schmidt.

Written by: Cardinal on Saturday, December 31st, 2011

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