GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Keeping with the rollercoaster theme that has been the 2005-2006 season, it’s fitting Minnesota’s men’s hockey team would turn in a performance like this.
The Gophers rebounded from last weekend’s poor showings at home against Wisconsin to pull off a decisive sweep against their other main rival, North Dakota, this weekend.
Minnesota took both Western Collegiate Hockey Association contests by scores of 4-3 at Ralph Engelstad Arena. No. 8 Minnesota closes out the first half of the season with an overall record of 9-5-4 (8-4-2 WCHA).
“It’s big going into the holidays with this weekend,” junior goaltender Kellen Briggs, who was in net for both wins, said. “We can look back at this now after the break and say ‘Look what we did in Grand Forks,’ and kind of build off that.”
The Gophers certainly come out of the weekend with a lot of positives. The team was exponentially better in every area of the game in the series with No. 5 North Dakota (10-7-1, 6-6-0 WCHA) than it was just a week previous.
An especially big change could be seen in Minnesota’s defensive play, and that improvement was necessary late in both games.
Trailing 4-3 each night, the Sioux pulled their goaltender in order to get the extra attack. And, each night, soon after, the Gophers were called for penalties, forcing the team to fight off a pair of 6-on-4 situations.
Minnesota’s defense — under fire all week after a bad series against the Badgers — responded to the challenge with gusto, successfully keeping North Dakota at bay.
The four players on the ice did a solid job of moving around and not allowing the Sioux opportunities in those situations both nights. The late-game heroics were indicative of the defense all weekend as the unit played with intensity and hustle.
“I thought our defensemen did a good job all weekend as well,” coach Don Lucia said. “They really rebounded from last week.”
In the event the defense did allow an opportunity, either late in the game or elsewhere, Briggs was usually there to close the door. Briggs turned in an especially strong performance Saturday, stopping 30 shots.
Lucia said Briggs got the nod in game two over the team’s usual Saturday night starter, freshman Jeff Frazee, because Briggs had won two straight games in Grand Forks and had the experience to play in the big game situation.
But, as strong as Briggs and company were on the defensive end, that wasn’t the only area of the ice where the Gophers saw a marked improvement.
On the offensive end, Minnesota got back to playing Gopher hockey, which meant turning up the pace of the game, keeping the pressure on and creating a lot of good chances.
And when the Gophers got those chances, they were able to finish; again, something that just didn’t happen in the Wisconsin series. Minnesota proved it was a different team early on both nights.
The Gophers jumped out to a 2-0 lead within the first 7:21 Saturday on a pair of pretty goals from freshman Justin Bostrom and junior Ryan Potulny. The goals came less than two minutes apart and made up half of Minnesota’s shots on goal total for the first period (four).
Potulny, a Grand Forks native, also played a big part in giving the Gophers an early lead Friday night, lighting the lamp just 58 seconds into the contest.
Those quick goals enabled Minnesota, which never trailed against the Sioux after trailing for all of the Wisconsin series, to settle down and play relaxed.
“I think a real key this weekend, we were able to play with a lead all weekend long,” Lucia said. “Like when Wisconsin played us last weekend, they had the lead from start to finish and the same thing for us this weekend. It’s a lot easier to play with the lead.”
Everything just seemed to come easier for Minnesota this weekend. The team could sense during the week that might happen because, as Potulny said, “The work ethic was really there in practice and that’s a big change from last week’s practice.”
What the Gophers began early in the week, they closed out at the end of the week. And while Briggs might be correct in saying that the team has underachieved in the first half of the season, Minnesota once again showed that — just when the ride seems at its lowest — the team is fully capable of bringing it back up.
“It’s huge just for our emotions and our character to come off a sweep and come back and sweep our other rival,” said junior forward Danny Irmen, a native of Fargo and himself responsible for a five-point weekend (two goals, three assists). “It’s really good for the team, it’s really good for the confidence, but you know, it’s over now so we gotta move on.”
© Copyright 2005 The Minnesota Daily