ST. CLOUD - Last weekend's break from competition gave the Gophers two weeks to rest up, get healthy and fine-tune their game for the stretch run of the WCHA race. Among their top priorities: allowing center Erik Haula to fully heal from his hand injury and improving their 4-on-4 play.
The benefits of that time off showed Friday, as the top-ranked Gophers ambushed No. 8 St. Cloud State 4-2 before a raucous crowd of 5,648 at the National Hockey Center. The Gophers (19-4-4, 11-4-4 WCHA) broke a 2-2 tie with a pair of 4-on-4 goals midway through the third period. Haula, who had played four games at wing while his hand mended, scored the game-winner -- his second goal of the game -- at 9 minutes, 32 seconds of the third period.
The loss ended a six-game undefeated streak for St. Cloud State (17-11-1, 14-6-1 WCHA) and pulled the Gophers within three points of the first-place Huskies. St. Cloud State had not lost a league game since Dec. 7, a span of nine games.
The Gophers' resolve was tested repeatedly in the first game of the only series this season between the in-state rivals. Two apparent first-period goals by Zach Budish were disallowed after long reviews, and the Huskies twice rallied to tie the score. After Haula put the Gophers ahead 2-1 early in the second period, the Gophers were assessed a costly penalty in the third and surrendered a power-play goal to the Huskies' Drew LeBlanc.
With the teams skating 4-on-4, Nate Schmidt fed Haula for a pretty goal that gave them the lead for good. Schmidt, a St. Cloud native, finished it off less than a minute later with a blistering slap shot past Huskies goalie Ryan Faragher. The Gophers outshot St. Cloud State 42-24 and got an outstanding performance from freshman goaltender Adam Wilcox, who made 22 saves.
"There were a couple of things that didn't go our way in the first period, and that happens in hockey games,'' said Schmidt, who leads all NCAA defensemen with 27 points. "You've gotta overcome the obstacles put in front of you.
"It was a little disheartening [to have the disallowed goals], but you've just got to rally the troops for another shift. We just had to weather the storm.''
The Gophers struck first on Nick Bjugstad's 14th goal of the season, which came in between the two goals that were waved off. On the first, the Gophers' Sam Warning brushed Faragher, and the goalie's helmet popped off before the puck crossed the goal line. On the second, Kyle Rau was knocked into Faragher as Budish shot.
The Huskies' Joey Benik tied the score late in the first period. In the second, the Gophers dictated play for most of the period -- outshooting the Huskies 16-5 -- and took a 2-1 lead on Haula's wrist shot from the right circle.
But Seth Helgeson was called for hooking early in the third, and LeBlanc tied the score with a power-play goal at 3:59. When the Gophers' Seth Ambroz and the Huskies' Taylor Johnson were penalized for roughing at 8:47, the Gophers got a chance to show coach Don Lucia what they learned during their time off.
"One thing we talked about [in practice last week] was that we should be a better 4-on-4 team than we had been,'' Lucia said. "We have a good skill level, and we have defensemen who can make some plays with the puck.''
Schmidt got the puck out of a tangle in front of the Gophers' net and passed to Haula, who made a slick move on Faragher. Only 58 seconds later, Schmidt got open in the right circle and waited for the perfect moment to blast a shot for his seventh goal of the season.
"We just had to stick with it,'' Haula said. "We did a great job of fighting back.''