BEMIDJI – At this point in the hockey season, Don Lucia is not concerned with style points. “It’s not a beauty pageant,’’ the Gophers coach said Friday, after his team defeated Bemidji State 4-3 at Sanford Center. “It’s all about a W or an L. Survive and move on.’’
The No. 2 Gophers were less than elegant against a determined Beavers team that took the lead early in the third period. But they managed a few fleeting moments of grace, particularly on a pair of power-play goals by Nick Bjugstad, to pull out a victory that kept them in the hunt for one final WCHA crown. After back-to-back goals by Cory Ward gave the Beavers a 3-2 lead with 17 minutes, 30 seconds remaining, fourth-line winger Justin Holl pulled the Gophers even, and Bjugstad won it with his 10th power-play goal of the season.
For much of the game, the Gophers (23-7-5, 15-7-5 WCHA) were as off-key as the Elvis impersonator who performed afterward. Holl’s goal at 7:27 of the third and Bjugstad’s second at 14:54 gave them two points that secured home ice for the first round of the WCHA playoffs next weekend. It also ensured the Gophers will remain in the midst of a suspenseful WCHA title race in their final season in the league.
The top three teams in the league—St. Cloud State, the Gophers and North Dakota—all won Friday. St. Cloud State maintained a two-point lead over the Gophers and North Dakota with one game remaining.
“We’re thankful to come up with the win,’’ said Bjugstad, who also scored at 2:21 of the second period. “We came out hard in the first 10 minutes, but they jumped on us after that.
“It’s good we battled back in the third period. We’ve got to make sure we buckle down [Saturday].’’
Bemidji State (6-19-8, 5-15-7 WCHA) continued its hard-luck ways in a season that now has eight one-goal losses to go with eight ties. Goalie Andrew Walsh was supported by an outstanding team defense that repeatedly disrupted the Gophers’ attack in the neutral zone and often outbattled them on the boards.
The Gophers pressed a swift pace at the start and took a 1-0 lead on Ben Marshall’s goal at 5:09. The gritty Beavers then began forcing turnovers and catching the Gophers flatfooted.
Matt Prapavessis banged in a rebound of Jake Areshenko’s shot from the left point at 9:29, as the Beavers outshot the Gophers 13-10 in the first period. Bjugstad restored the Gophers’ lead with his first power-play goal, firing a shot over Walsh early in the second period.
Ward got to the net to score on a rebound at 18:17 to tie it,then got loose in the slot for the go-ahead goal at 2:30 of the third. “We’ve been in that position quite a bit,’’ Bjugstad said. “When we got the power play, our eyes got a little bigger.’’
The Gophers’ power play still leads the nation, but it had scored on only two of 18 chances in the past four games. The team put in extra work in last week’s practices, Bjugstad said, and crisp puck movement led to his winning goal from the left circle.
That gave the Gophers the W they sought.
“This was a huge win for us,’’ Holl said. “We’re still in the hunt. We’ve got to take care of business [Saturday].’’