What a game tonight at Mariucci Arena.
First things first:
The Gophers sweep North Dakota for the first time since December of 2005. It was Don Lucia’s first home sweep of North Dakota as Gophers head coach and Minnesota’s first sweep of the Fighting Sioux at Mariucci since 1996-97.
The win puts the Gophers 10 points ahead of North Dakota in the WCHA standings — still a long ways from the finish line, that 10 points back of a quality team like Minnesota likely means the MacNaughton Cup will be somewhere other than Grand Forks, N.D. come early March.
UND has gained a reputation as a bit of a slow starter during the Dave Hakstol era — but not this slow. This is North Dakota’s worst start in WCHA play in almost four decades, when UND started 1-9 in 1974.
If there was any doubt heading into the weekend about how good Minnesota is, that doubt is now gone. Yeah, North Dakota is down right now. But the Gophers showed a grit and determination Saturday night they haven’t shown in years. Despite heavily outshooting the Sioux through two and a half periods and having been blanked on their previously powerful power play, Minnesota refused to quit — tying the score with a greasy goal by Nick Larson with 6:04 left before scoring another dirty one by Kyle Rau with under a minute left.
Minnesota is very much back, folks. And for the first time in almost a decade, Mariucci Arena is going to be a tough place to play. I’ve been coming here for over 15 years, and the atmosphere this weekend was one of the best I’ve seen. With so much losing going on in Minnesota sports in recent years — both professionally and collegiately — fans in the Twin Cities are starving for a winner. For the first time in years, the Gopher hockey program is providing them with that. And the fans responded all weekend long. Saturday’s crowd was the 10th largest in arena history.
And while this weekend’s series was a match-up of two teams with rosters chock full of NHL draft picks, it was Minnesota’s fourth line which seemed to be the key to victory 00 especially Saturday. Don Lucia even said so. Perhaps the best player on the ice in game two was Gopher forward Tom Serratore. He blocked several shots and played especially well in the defensive zone. His line mate Travis Boyd won a key puck battle to set up Larson’s game tying goal in the third. Obviously, Larson tied the game, but he was a buzz saw on the offensive end, finally capitalizing late after several good chances early in the game.
If the Gophers can get continued play like that from its fourth line, watch out. For years, Lucia has tried putting goal scorers galore in the line-up on a nightly basis and it hasn’t worked. Now he’s got gritty role players eating those minutes — guys who are more than happy to match-up with an opponent’s top line and play sound defensive hockey, not worrying about their offensive numbers. So far, that’s paying huge dividends.
From a North Dakota perspective, Aaron Dell was awesome all weekend. Saturday, he just left a few too many rebounds in front. Unlike Kent Patterson, who had the same issue Friday, NoDak’s defensemen were not as diligent at clearing those loose pucks. Definitely a confidence boost for Dell though after some early season struggles.
UND also needs to find more consistency on the power play. With less firepower than normal, the Fighting Sioux need to take better advantage of the power play to create offense, and more importantly, momentum. It seemed like Minnesota created more of that this weekend, even when UND was up a man.
That’s all from here folks. Check CHN later this weekend for a feature on Kyle Rau.