Minnesota simply doesn’t know the meaning of a losing streak.
The Golden Gophers, faced with the prospect of dropping two consecutive games for the first time since the 2000-01 season, rallied for two third-period goals to edge top-ranked Colorado College, 3-2, before a capacity crowd of 7,604 at the Colorado Springs World Arena on Saturday.
The win keeps No. 7 Minnesota on the inside track for home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. The Golden Gophers are now 15-7-7 overall and 10-5-5 in league play, while the Tigers saw their 11-game unbeaten streak snapped in falling to 22-3-5, 15-2-5 in conference action.
“This was a total team effort,” said Gopher head coach Don Lucia, who coached Colorado College for six years before heading to Minnesota. “This certainly was a huge win for us.”
The Tigers dug themselves an early hole, as Minnesota took advantage of a Mark Stuart penalty just 19 seconds into the contest. On the ensuing power play, freshman Tyler Hirsch wristed a shot from the left faceoff circle that squeaked through the pads of Colorado College goaltender Curtis McElhinney.
Ten minutes later, the Tigers responded with a man-advantage tally of their own. Just six seconds after Troy Riddle was whistled for hooking, senior Tom Preissing fired a wrister that beat Minnesota netminder Justin Johnson top-shelf.
All three players credited with a point on the goal achieved a milestone. For Preissing, the goal was his 19th of the year, setting the team record for most goals by a defenseman in a season.
Classmate Noah Clarke earned his 100th career assist, while junior Peter Sejna, who won the faceoff back to Clarke, extended his school record for consecutive games with a point to 31.
“If I don’t score another goal the rest of the year and we win, I’ll be happy,” said Preissing.
The next 20 minutes saw very little in the way of scoring opportunities, as both defenses clogged the neutral zone and limited five-on-five chances. As a result, both teams had just eight shots on goal at the game’s midway point.
“We had a lot of trouble getting to the net,” said CC head coach Scott Owens, who could have been speaking for both teams. “(Minnesota) played extremely hard and desperate like we thought they would.”
With 6:29 left in the second stanza, Colorado College connected on the power play to take its first lead. Sejna fed the puck to junior Andrew Canzanello, who teed off a slap shot that beat Johnson to his right.
The Tigers looked to extend their lead as the second period came to a close, firing six shots on goal in the final two minutes of the frame. Johnson denied all six, including a stick save on a Joe Cullen breakaway that popped up and hit the top of the goal cage.
After weathering the storm, Minnesota tied the contest 39 seconds into the third period. A beautiful pass from Riddle in the corner found freshman Thomas Vanek alone at point-blank range. McElhinney sprawled to deny Vanek’s first attempt, but Vanek’s putback squirted through.
“If that takes place later in the period, maybe that puck doesn’t go in,” said Owens, noting the smooth ice.
An incredible individual effort by fourth-line center Jake Fleming with 11:36 remaining in regulation helped the Golden Gophers regain the lead. The diminutive sophomore won a battle for the puck in the corner, skated in between the faceoff circles, and slipped a shot past McElhinney.
Minnesota played smart with the lead, allowing the Tigers only a couple of quality scoring chances. The Golden Gophers also took advantage of Preissing’s hooking penalty with 1:39 remaining, as they were able to play keepaway in the offensive zone.
Johnson, in just his second start since November, stopped 11 of his 18 shots in the second period for the victory. McElhinney, who lost for just the third time in 34 career outings, finished with 22 saves.
“Minnesota was extremely difficult to play against tonight,” said Owens. “It’s just one of those nights, but I’m disappointed we didn’t play a little grittier.”