With no games for the past 12 days, the only competition the Gophers men’s hockey team got was against each other. Each day in practice, they split into two teams and tried to create the same situations they would see Friday, when they resumed Big Ten play against Michigan.
It wasn’t a perfect substitute, but it did the trick. The No. 9 Gophers unleashed two weeks of pent-up energy in a 5-2 demolition of the Wolverines at Mariucci Arena, extending their win streak to five games and maintaining a share of the Big Ten lead with Penn State. Tyler Sheehy scored twice and added an assist in a strong all-around effort for the Gophers (12-5-2, 4-1 Big Ten), who won for the seventh time in eight games.
After a 20-day break in early December, the Gophers won the Mariucci Classic title on Dec. 30 and 31 before a bye week created another interruption in the schedule. Coach Don Lucia wasn’t sure how his team would respond after playing only two games in 33 days, but a series of hypercompetitive practices gave him optimism.
A crowd announced at 9,342 saw the Gophers score three goals in the final 5 minutes, 41 seconds of the first period to erase a 1-0 Michigan lead. They outshot the Wolverines (8-10-1, 1-4) 45-24.
“It feels like forever when you’re sitting through a weekend, watching other teams play,’’ said Sheehy, who leads the Gophers with 14 goals. “We were ready to go.
“We had to match [Michigan’s] intensity right away, and we were able to do that pretty well. We had a really competitive week of practice, and that really helped us out.’’
Following a sweep of Michigan State on Dec. 9-10, the Gophers rested and recharged through a long winter break. They maintained their momentum with a pair of victories in the Mariucci Classic. In those games, goalie Eric Schierhorn improved and also got better support from his teammates.
Lucia pitted his players against each other in scrimmages last week to sharpen their competitive edge. He liked what he saw in two weeks of high-intensity practices — but during Friday’s pregame skate, he thought his players looked a little sluggish. So he reminded them how important it would be to start quickly against Michigan.
The Gophers surrendered the first goal when Max Shuart scored at 8:57, then took control with their speed.
Rem Pitlick started the barrage at 14:19 when he sniped a shot past goalie Zach Nagelvoort. Tommy Novak scored on a deflection at 16:29, and Mike Szmatula made it 3-1 on a goal with 1.7 seconds left in the first period.
“We had good energy early,’’ Lucia said. “It was a good, solid team effort. A lot of guys were involved.’’
After outshooting Michigan 17-8 in the first period, the Gophers overwhelmed the Wolverines in the second, controlling the puck for long stretches and rarely allowed Michigan to cross into their zone.
Michigan did not get a second-period shot on goal until 6:58, when Brendan Warren stole the puck in front of the Gophers’ net and scored shorthanded. The Gophers regained a two-goal lead at 18:01 on Sheehy’s first score. He added a power-play goal midway through the third period.
The Gophers have lost only once in eight games dating to Nov. 27. Lucia said “we’ll find out’’ whether they can keep rolling in Saturday’s series finale, but first, he wanted to savor the moment.
“It’s just nice to win games and play well,’’ he said. “That’s the bottom line.”