One night after erasing a big lead in a tie against Denver, Minnesota apparently wasn’t satisfied.
Saturday, the Gophers went one better, again watching the Pioneers accumulate a three-goal lead before scoring six straight times in an 8-5 win at Mariucci Arena.
With Denver up 4-1 midway through the second period, Minnesota stunned the Pioneers by notching four goals in under four minutes to take over the contest.
Rookie winger Tyler Hirsch kicked off the rally, scoring twice to put Minnesota back in the game. At 12:26, on the power play, defenseman Chris Harrington had his shot turned aside by DU netminder Wade Dubielewicz, but the rebound was kicked around in traffic until Hirsch put the puck in the open half of the net.
Two and a half minutes later, after a hold put Minnesota on its sixth man-advantage, good puck movement from Andy Sertich to Hirsch got the freshman free in the high slot. Hirsch deked one defender, then got Dubielewicz (34 saves) to commit before easing the puck into the right side of the net at 14:59.
Eighteen seconds later the comeback was complete. Blueliner Paul Martin’s shot from the point was deflected top-shelf by Matt Koalska to knot the score at 4.
And finally, the improbable became the impossible as Minnesota took the lead on a fluke goal. Tallackson’s pass from near the left boards hit a skate 25 feet away from the net, caroming unerringly inside the post at 16:22. Dubielewicz could only look on as the Gophers celebrated their first lead, 5-4.
The Gophers (19-8-8, 14-6-6 WCHA) never relinquished that lead en route to a wild, crucial victory.
“It was a huge win for us,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. “Tyler [Hirsch] made a couple of great plays on the power play.”
The comeback was all the more startling given that it came against the WCHA’s top goaltender. But the Gophers entered the contest with a battle plan.
“Coach pointed out that [Dubielewicz] doesn’t move well laterally,” said Hirsch. “That helped us on a lot of our goals.”
Also assisting the Gophers was an usually live crowd of 10,015 at Mariucci. “The crowd was outstanding,” said Lucia. “These are the kind of wins that don’t happen on the road.”
The Gopher power play also came to life as Minnesota was 3-for-7 with the man-advantage. Lucia credited that success partly to using four forwards, and also occasionally two freshmen at the point, which he termed “a little scary.”
The win put Minnesota in a commanding position for the third seed in the WCHA playoffs, an all-important reward considering that the top seven teams are all above .500 in league play.
Minnesota’s comeback shifted the spotlight from would-be hero Luke Fulghum, who scored three times to put DU in charge before the collapse.
“We just need to bear down for 60 minutes,” said Fulghum, whose Pioneers (20-10-6, 11-9-6) have suffered a mildly disappointing season but are firmly on the NCAA tournament bubble. “Hopefully we can get that done by playoff time.”
After the train wreck that passed for a first period Friday night, Minnesota’s effort level early Saturday was a vast improvement. Unfortunately for the Gophers, the results looked much the same as Denver leaped out to a two-goal lead after one.
Netminder Travis Weber (28 saves) helped Minnesota kill a five-on-three power play early, but another miscue on their own power play cost the Gophers. After a giveaway, Lukas Dora dropped the puck for Fulghum, who released a soft skimmer that slipped past Weber at 17:06.
The Gophers gave up another odd-man rush late, a two-on-one break that ended in a Greg Keith slapshot from the top of the right circle. The shot went off Weber’s glove and rolled behind him for a 2-0 Pioneer advantage at 18:29.
“I don’t think we started poorly,” said Hirsch. “We just didn’t wait as long tonight to get it going.”
The Gophers converted on the power play in the opening minute of the second period. Captain Grant Potulny took a back-door pass from Paul Martin and tucked away his sixth goal of the year.
But Fulghum put the Pioneers back up by two at 2:27 on a shot that flipped up in the air, bounced off the left pipe and lay just outside the goal line, and Weber appeared to push it across with his leg pad.
Yet another two-on-one produced Denver’s fourth goal at 4:32. Fulghum was again the shooter, stuffing the puck five-hole to complete the hat trick.
Then Minnesota reversed the flow. After its four-goal outburst to finish the second, Minnesota extended to a 6-4 lead at 3:30 of the third on another goal by Tallackson, who took a cross-ice pass from Jerrid Reinholz and danced around Dubielewicz.
Jake Fleming made it 7-4, chasing Dubielewicz in favor of Adam Berkhoel (three saves) at 6:11. Denver got one back on the power play at 14:03 on a Jeff Drummond wraparound, but Minnesota’s Jon Waibel finished off a two-on-two at 16:46 to seal the outcome.
For Denver, the weekend was a lost opportunity. The Pioneers entered Friday four points behind Minnesota, but return to Colorado tangled with three other teams looking for two home berths in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
“Our goal was to take three out of four points, or even four out of four,” said Fulghum. “I just think it’s the chemistry. … Last year, we had a team that came to play 60 minutes every night.”
Minnesota, meanwhile, is riding a confidence high after a three-point weekend.
“We’re a dangerous team, but we’ve got to turn it on right away,” said Hirsch. “We can bury some pretty good teams if we do that.”
“I don’t know if all the pieces are in place,” seconded Tallackson, “but this win was very big for us.”
Next weekend, Minnesota plays a home-and-home series with St. Cloud State, while Denver does the same against archrival and national No. 1 Colorado College.