Following Friday’s 3-2 loss to Notre Dame, Gophers coach Bob Motzko tried to find a new way to say the same old thing. He repeated some of the words he’s used throughout the season — frustrating, a roller coaster, up and down — then settled on something simple.
“That was not good,’’ Motzko said. “That was a very poor effort by us.’’
Motzko considered using the term “blindsided,’’ but that didn’t really fit when his team repeated its tiresome pattern of following a solid weekend with a subpar one. This time, the Gophers let a 2-0 lead get away, as the 16th-ranked Irish rallied with three consecutive goals at 3M Arena at Mariucci. The loss dropped the Gophers from second place in the Big Ten standings into a third-place tie with Michigan, dampening their hopes of earning home ice for the first round of the league tournament.
Only a week after a road sweep of league leader Ohio State, the Gophers came home and took a step backward. The Irish got second-period goals from Colin Theisen and Cam Burke to wipe out the Gophers’ 2-0 first-period lead before Thiesen scored the game-winner at 8 minutes, 1 second of the third period.
The Gophers (13-15-4, 10-10-3 Big Ten) have only one more Big Ten game — Saturday’s series finale — to collect points. Five of their six league rivals have another weekend of conference play remaining. That left Motzko even more aggravated, as his team stumbled on a night when the stakes were so high.
“I wish I had the answer for it,’’ he said. “How do you guard against playing very well, and then just totally have your foot off the pedal? That’s not how you play the game.
“Notre Dame played a hard, smart hockey game. But we made it so bloody easy for them.’’
Motzko got no argument from his players. In a game critical to their hopes of finishing in the top four in the Big Ten, which would secure home ice for the league tournament’s first round, the Gophers struck quickly and then backed off.
Brannon McManus got credit for their first goal when he cut to the net, and Notre Dame defenseman Spencer Stastney accidentally pushed the loose puck past goaltender Cale Morris at 4:09. Nathan Burke made it 2-0 when he snared a puck in traffic in the slot and slung it in at the 12-minute mark of the first period.
The Irish (17-11-3, 10-9-2) were in control the rest of the way. They outshot the Gophers 31-26 — including a 14-8 margin in a second period that Motzko called “just awful’’ — and got 24 saves from Morris.
“We kind of got complacent,’’ McManus said. “Obviously, we’ve got to be better. We started hot, but we get too comfortable. We’ve got to match their intensity.’’
Notre Dame scored its first goal on a power play at 2:47 of the second period, as Thiesen’s shot from the right circle sneaked through goalie Mat Robson’s pads. Burke then showcased the Irish’s speed when he charged to the net and scored off a beautiful backhand pass from Pierce Crawford.
On Theisen’s second goal, the Gophers were unable to wrest the puck from Cam Morrison as he worked behind the goal line, then allowed Theisen the time and space for a game-winning shot from the right circle.
McManus speculated that Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson probably ripped his team after the first intermission, jolting the Irish into sharper play. He hinted that Motzko gave his team the same treatment after the game. “Whoever has a jersey in their stall [Saturday], they’re going to be working,’’ McManus said. “Coach made that clear.’’
Motzko noted that if the Gophers stay true to their pattern, they’re due to play well again.
“We’re in a must-win situation,’’ he said. “We have to have a much better effort.’’