ST. CLOUD - The hope, Don Lucia said, was that the Gophers could snatch three points in their series against WCHA leader St. Cloud State in the frantic atmosphere of the National Hockey Center. Saturday night's 4-3 loss to the Huskies left them a little short of that aim, but the Gophers coach did not come away disheartened.
The top-ranked Gophers (19-5-4, 11-5-4 WCHA) ran into a smoking-hot goaltender and a stout team defense stoked by an announced crowd of 6,140. The No. 8 Huskies rode 36 saves by sophomore Ryan Faragher -- including a blizzard of close-range chances by the Gophers' best players -- to earn a split in the last regular-season WCHA series between the in-state rivals.
The Gophers outshot the Huskies 39-21 and racked up 70 attempted shots to the Huskies' 43, but Faragher and his teammates left them little to show for it.
The victory kept St. Cloud State (18-11-1, 15-6-1) atop the league standings. The Huskies took a 2-0 lead in the second period on goals by Joey Holka and Nic Dowd, while the defense shut out the Gophers until Nate Schmidt's goal on a two-man advantage with 51 seconds remaining in the second period.
Jonny Brodzinski and Drew LeBlanc added two more goals early in the third for a 4-1 lead, and Faragher withstood a late Gophers rally.
Save for a few errors, Lucia said, the weekend represented another step forward for the Gophers. The defeat was their first loss in their past nine games away from Mariucci Arena dating to a 5-3 loss Nov. 3 at Minnesota State Mankato.
"I have no issue with our effort, though we could have executed a little better at times," Lucia said. "Their goaltender played very well, and he was probably the difference in the game.
"If we keep playing hard like that, more often than not we're going to win. Games like this make you better."
Several Gophers players agreed, but they still regretted a handful of mistakes that loomed large in a tight game. Two of the Huskies' goals came on bad line changes by the Gophers, and captain Zach Budish said his team needed to do a better job of limiting turnovers and getting pucks deep.
Still, he credited the St. Cloud State defense with standing up to barrage after barrage. After neither team scored in the first period, Holka put St. Cloud State on top when he gained control of a bouncing puck and batted it past goalie Adam Wilcox at 2 minutes, 39 seconds of the second period. When the Gophers turned up the heat late in the period, Faragher stopped eight close-in shots, and his teammates blocked 10 of the Gophers' 29 attempts in the period.
Dowd increased the Huskies' lead to 2-0 with 2:12 remaining in the second. The Gophers finally cracked the defense when Nick Jensen was called for charging and LeBlanc was called for boarding after a hit on Kyle Rau in the corner of the Huskies' zone. Schmidt's power-play goal pulled the Gophers within 2-1, but Brodzinski scored from the blue line early in the third, and LeBlanc got loose for a breakaway goal.
Nick Bjugstad's power-play goal at 10:53 and Nate Condon's goal at 14:26 made it close, but Faragher prevented the Gophers from getting that third point they hoped for this weekend.
"It wasn't a bad night, but we have to do better defensively," Budish said. "We're not happy with the loss, and there were two points in the standings that we left on the board. But we didn't give up, and that's a sign of a good team. We just have to keep improving."