As the Gophers prepared for Friday's game against Denver, coach Don Lucia pointed out that the page had turned on the calendar. The dawn of March meant it was time for his players to turn things up a notch with only four regular-season games remaining to gain steam as they move toward the WCHA playoffs.
To Lucia's surprise and consternation, the No. 2 Gophers took a step backward in a wretched 2-0 loss at Mariucci Arena. They were outplayed throughout a plodding, dull game, failing to put any pressure on the No. 10 Pioneers until very late. The Gophers (21-7-5, 13-7-5 WCHA) were outshot 36-33, and their power play -- ranked No. 1 in the nation -- was blanked on five chances as it mustered only two shots on goal.
Denver (17-10-5, 12-8-5) disrupted the Gophers' power play so thoroughly that its penalty killers quadrupled the Gophers' output, putting eight shots on net.
Shawn Ostrow broke a 0-0 tie at 18 seconds of the third period as Ty Loney's pass struck his skate and caromed past goalie Adam Wilcox, and Loney added an empty-net goal.
The loss dropped the Gophers to third place in the WCHA with 31 points as North Dakota (32 points) and first-place St. Cloud State (35) both won on Friday. A crowd announced at 10,094 grew increasingly cranky, booing the Gophers in the opener of the final regular-season series at Mariucci. Their ill temper was no match for Lucia's, as he ranted at his team before it convened a long and unhappy postgame meeting.
"I've said all year that we hadn't had a game where we just weren't very good, but [Friday] we did,'' said Lucia, whose Gophers had not been shut out since March 12, 2011. "They got an earful. They may not feel better, but I do.
"I'm agitated. I'm disappointed. I don't get on them very often, but playing hard is a given. That has to be our foundation every night.''
The Gophers had hoped to break a pattern in which they played well on Fridays then failed to match that effort on Saturdays. Entering the game, the Pioneers had allowed more shots and committed more penalties than any team in the WCHA. The Gophers, sluggish and disjointed from the start, were unable to use that to their advantage. In the first period, they were outshot 10-4 while squandering a pair of power plays.
The power play -- which had been connecting at a 25 percent clip -- did not record a shot on net on its first three chances as Denver repeatedly knocked the puck away and raced down the ice for shorthanded shots. "Our first unit couldn't even get set up,'' captain Zach Budish said. "We're embarrassed. We deserved to get booed.''
Pioneers goalie Juho Olkinuora stopped all 33 shots he faced, while Wilcox was beaten once. He stopped Zac Larraza's shot from the left boards, but Loney snared the rebound and threw it back toward Ostrow in front of the net. Though Ostrow whiffed on a shot, the puck deflected in off his skate.
Denver is 9-2 in its past 11 games against the Gophers, including a 4-1 mark in its past five at Mariucci Arena. Lucia and Budish both said they were surprised at the Gophers' poor effort after a strong week of practice. The coach said it is up to everyone to correct that in Saturday's rematch.
"Your identity is forged in what you do in March,'' Lucia said. "This is the critical month.''