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The Minnesota Gophers characterized two one-goal home losses to Minnesota Duluth in November as the most agonizing of the season. Those defeats helped keep Minnesota on an early-season downward spiral.
Minnesota is making a comeback heading into March. The Gophers never trailed in beating No. 12 UMD, 3-2, Friday night in a Western Collegiate Hockey Association menâ€™s series opener before a sellout crowd of 5,385 at the DECC.
Minnesota (16-15-2 overall, 11-12-2 in the WCHA) has won three straight games, while UMD (18-14-1, 14-10-1) has lost three straight and is 2-7 the last nine.
While UMD had a couple of goals off Minnesota skates in the earlier sweep, Minnesotaâ€™s winning goal, credited to winger Jacob Cepis, appeared to go off the skate of UMD defenseman Drew Olson with 5:01 to play in a mad scramble in front.
â€œWe had a lot of those bounces go against us earlier and itâ€™s nice to know our hard work is giving us some bounces now,â€ said Minnesota defenseman Cade Fairchild, a junior from Duluth.
Fairchild was part of the craziest sequence of events of the night. He came out of the penalty box as UMD turned the puck over on an ill-advised line change. As Fairchild zoomed down the slot, UMD defenseman Chad Huttel prepared to defend, but collided with referee Scott Bokal. Fairchild saw he had a couple of extra seconds and converted his breakaway with 10:47 to play.
UMDâ€™s Travis Oleksuk responded 82 seconds later on a power-play rebound from the crease to make it 2-2.
â€œWe played a good, basic 60-minute game. We killed a five-minute penalty, we scored on two power plays. We deserved better than we got,â€ said Oleksuk, who had the overtime-winning goal at Minnesota on Nov. 20.
Minnesota had the only goal of the first period as center Nick Larson put on a burst of speed down the slot, got a Jake Hansen past, and put a shot high past goalie Brady Hjelle.
When defenseman Brady Lamb was called for a boarding major penalty midway through the second period, the Bulldogs were able to defuse Minnesota. And although Oleuksuk missed a wide-open net with 1:40 left in the period on a power play, winger David Grun connected on the same power play with 3.7 seconds to go. He stuck in a rebound at the left edge.
â€œIâ€™m not disappointed at all in our effort,â€ said UMD coach Scott Sandelin. â€œBut when a referee runs into one of our players, that typifies how things have been going lately. We made two mistakes and the official gets in the way. Iâ€™d like to see us hit the net a little more, but really I liked everything but the result.â€
Sandelin changed his four forward lines after two losses at North Dakota a week earlier. The Bulldogs had mustered just seven goals total the previous four games in going 1-3.
In the final period, UMD outshot Minnesota 14-4 and 34-24 for the game. Hjelle was pulled with 1:06 to play but there was no equalizer. Minnesota goalie Alex Kangas was solid with 32 stops.
â€œEarlier we found a way not to win, and those two losses [to UMD] stuck in our craw as much as any,â€ said Minnesota coach Don Lucia. â€œWe just have to keep digging, and persevering and give ourselves a chance to win.â€
The loss kept UMD in fourth place in the league, while Minnesota, in seventh, drew within one point of sixth place, and five behind the Bulldogs with three regular season games to play.