The easy answer, Nate Schmidt knew, was to blame it on North Dakota. After the emotional overload of last weekend's series against their most bitter rival, the Gophers showed none of that same fire in the early part of Friday's game against Minnesota State Mankato.
Schmidt's team woke up from its slumber in the third period, but its late burst of energy went for naught in a 2-1 loss at Mariucci Arena. The Mavericks' Brett Knowles -- a third-line wing who had scored only one goal all season -- snared a rebound at the right edge of the goal crease and tucked it past Gophers goalie Adam Wilcox with only 44 seconds left. The loss was the first for the top-ranked Gophers since Nov. 30, ending a 10-game unbeaten streak.
Schmidt understood the theory that the UND series had drained the Gophers' psyches, but the junior defenseman wasn't accepting any explanations. In the fiercely competitive WCHA, he said, no team can afford to sag as the Gophers (17-4-4, 9-4-4 WCHA) did through the first 40 minutes.
Schmidt staked them to a 1-0 lead with a goal at 7 minutes, 48 seconds of the second period. But they were outshot 24-18 through the first two periods and failed to score on two power plays as the 14th-ranked Mavericks (16-8-3, 10-8-1) handed them only their second home loss in 16 games this season.
"The first and second periods, we were sloppy," Schmidt said. "We couldn't string together consecutive shifts and get a rhythm going. We didn't block a lot of shots or get the puck out of the zone.
"I don't have an answer. With how good the league is, if we have a lackluster first period, that's what happens."
Gophers coach Don Lucia said he was impressed with MSU Mankato in November, and he was even more impressed with how the young team had developed since then. The Mavericks have won 13 of their past 17 games behind a stout defense anchored by freshman goalie Stephon Williams.
The only goal Williams surrendered came when Nate Condon's pass from the right side hit a skate, deflecting to a wide-open Schmidt in the left circle.
Johnny McInnis pulled the Mavericks even at 16:42 of the second on a power play, getting position at the left edge of the goal crease and snapping in Matt Leitner's pass from behind the goal line.
Williams shut out the nation's highest-scoring offense for the final 32:12, even as the Gophers outshot the Mavericks 20-9 in the third period. Lucia was pleased that his team gave up only two goals and was happy with Wilcox, who lost for only the third time in 23 games. But he was disappointed in the disorganized power play, which now has scored only once on its past 10 chances, and the flat play early.
"We were kind of sagging, not playing on our toes," Lucia said. "There wasn't much talk. I don't think we did enough to put ourselves in position to win the game. We did get better, but we couldn't get that next goal."
Slow starts on Fridays are nothing new for the Gophers. Schmidt said that to rebound Saturday, they must give Wilcox better defensive support, try not to press so hard on the power play and reprise the end of Friday's game rather than the beginning.
"With that little run in the third, I thought we had a chance to steal it," he said. "That was a bright spot in a dim game."