Gophers tap their power and surge past Denver

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 3, 2013 - 12:52 AM

Stung by Friday's loss, the U responded when Nick Bjugstad ignited the offense with a power-play goal.


Nick Bjugstad looked up during hockey practice at Mariucci Arena earlier this season

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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The moment the red light flashed, Nick Bjugstad dropped to his knees and shook his fists at the ceiling of Mariucci Arena. The Gophers winger had slashed a fierce shot past Denver goalie Sam Brittain midway through the third period Saturday, giving his team its first lead of the two-game series -- and unleashing a wave of emotion he could not contain.

Bjugstad's teammates took it from there, powering the No. 2 Gophers to a 5-1 victory in their regular-season home finale. In a game as thrilling as Friday's was flat, the Gophers (22-7-5, 14-7-5 WCHA) got two goals and two assists from captain Zach Budish and sterling play throughout the lineup to rebound from Friday's 2-0 loss. The victory boosted them into a tie for second place in the WCHA standings with North Dakota -- which tied Bemidji State -- and two points behind league leader St. Cloud State, which lost to Michigan Tech.

The Gophers fell behind 1-0 on Scott Mayfield's power-play goal at 3 minutes, 34 seconds of the first period despite inspired play from the start. Budish finally gave them their first goal of the series at 9:03 of the second period, and Bjugstad gave them the lead on a beautifully executed power play at 9:52 of the third.

That play began with pluck, as Nate Schmidt and Budish kept the puck in the zone. It finished with style, as Erik Haula faked a shot, then found Bjugstad in the left circle. It also stoked the Gophers' fire, as Justin Holl and Sam Warning finished off similar gritty, pretty plays in a four-goal third period to put an exclamation point on an emotional weekend.

No. 10 Denver (17-11-5, 12-9-5) was outshot 43-32 by the Gophers. Brittain made 38 saves for the Pioneers, while Adam Wilcox had 31 for the Gophers.

"It was kind of dramatic, but I was happy it went in,'' Bjugstad said of his celebration and goal. "We responded. We showed what a hard-working team we can be. It was a good all-around game.''

Saturday's game felt like a moment of reckoning for the Gophers after Friday's dismal showing. For three weeks, the team had talked about the need to sustain its top effort throughout entire weekends as it left precious WCHA points on the table. It inexplicably hit bottom Friday, leaving coach Don Lucia -- who always seems able to strike a positive note -- surprised and peeved.

After a long postgame meeting, Budish said he expected the Gophers to find motivation in their embarassment. Lucia shuffled his line combinations, seeking more balance by putting Christian Isackson with Bjugstad and Kyle Rau and reuniting Budish with Haula and Warning. Those top two lines pushed a much faster pace from the start.

Brittain was brilliant early on, turning away several close-range chances among the 26 saves he made in the first 29 minutes. After a point-blank stop on Haula, Budish picked the puck out of a tangle in the goalmouth and poked it over the line to tie it 1-1.

Bjugstad's goal jolted the power play out of its funk, giving the Gophers their only power-play goal in nine chances in the series. In an 80-second span later in the third, Travis Boyd chased down a puck to set up Holl for his second goal of the season, and Warning squirted past the Denver defense for a breakaway goal.

That kept the Gophers in position to continue fighting for the WCHA title -- and left them in a much better mood.

"The guys responded,'' Lucia said. "From start to finish, it was hard-fought. We got to the net harder, with much more desire. It was a much better effort, and we had to have that to have a chance to win.''

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