Last Wednesday, Gophers coach Don Lucia wasn't sure Erik Haula would be ready to play in this weekend's WCHA showdown against North Dakota. The junior center still was healing from a hand injury that had sidelined him for three games, casting doubt over whether the Gophers would have their leading scorer for their most-awaited series of the season.
Haula knew otherwise. Though he practiced only three days last week, he said nothing would stop him from playing against North Dakota -- and on Friday, his teammates shared that ferocity in a 5-1 victory over their biggest rival. Defenseman Ben Marshall scored the winning goal on a power play with 5.2 seconds left in the second period, and Haula closed out a three-goal third period with an empty-net score.
The top-ranked Gophers (17-3-3, 9-3-3 WCHA) won their sixth consecutive game before a raucous crowd at Mariucci Arena. The announced attendance of 10,318 was the third-largest to ever pack the building, adding another taste of history to the weekend.
This series is the last the two longtime rivals will play in the regular season for at least three years, as they move into different conferences next season.
That was not on the Gophers' minds Friday. They were thinking only of the here and now, of beating No. 6 North Dakota (13-7-3, 8-4-3) to gain two critical points in the league standings. Haula wasn't even thinking of his tender hand, which didn't prevent him from scoring his 100th and 101st points as a Gopher.
"Let's put it this way,'' said Haula, who assisted on the Gophers' third goal and drew the penalty that set up the winner. "I've never felt better after playing.
"I really wanted to play. This is a huge series, not just for us, but for the whole state. I wasn't going to miss it.''
Lucia moved Haula from his usual position at center, putting him at left wing on the top line with Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau. That group was part of a well-rounded effort by the Gophers, who have not lost in a nine-game stretch dating to Nov. 30.
Nate Condon scored a shorthanded goal and assisted on the Gophers' first two goals. Goaltender Adam Wilcox was spectacular, robbing North Dakota on a handful of point-blank shots and shutting UND out over the final 36 minutes, 26 seconds.
North Dakota struck first, scoring at 3:34 of the second period on a power play. Corban Knight's shot caromed off Michael Parks and the Gophers' Seth Helgeson as they battled in front of the net. The Gophers responded quickly, tying the score on Zach Budish's goal at 6:06 of the second.
Marshall batted in a rebound to put the Gophers ahead 2-1 just seconds before intermission. Nate Schmidt made it 3-1 on a blast from just inside the blue line at 6:03 of the third, and Condon added the shorthander at 15:24.
Condon jumped on the puck when Joe Gleason's stick shattered on a North Dakota power play, one of a few unlucky occurrences that combined with a handful of mistakes to spoil North Dakota's chances. Coach Dave Hakstol said his team also erred on a line change that allowed Haula to get loose for a breakaway with 64 seconds left in the second period. Goalie Clarke Saunders stopped his shot, but Andrew MacWilliam slashed him, giving the Gophers the power play that resulted in the winning goal.
"That was the turning point," Hakstol said. "That was a tough goal for us to give up. We made too many mistakes, and we weren't able to capitalize at a couple of key times when we got good offensive opportunities.''
The victory put the Gophers atop the WCHA standings by a single point in a tight race.