MANKATO - With a two-week break before the Gophers' next game, coach Don Lucia intends to use the time wisely. Lucia will give his players a couple of days off to rest their bodies and minds for the stretch run of the WCHA race, but he also has some rigorous practices planned to prepare them for the critical games to come.
They entered the break on a good note after a 4-1 victory Saturday over Minnesota State Mankato. After a poor start and a loss in Friday's series opener, the top-ranked Gophers (18-4-4, 10-4-4 WCHA) improved in several areas to put themselves back into a positive frame of mind. They showed more energy in the first period to jump to a 2-0 lead, gave better support to goalie Adam Wilcox and righted their struggling power play with two goals on three opportunities at Verizon Wireless Center.
Defensemen Justin Holl and Nate Schmidt scored in the first period, while Zach Budish made it 3-0 on a power play at 9 minutes, 46 seconds of the third. Wilcox stopped the Mavericks' first 24 shots before Zach Lehrke slammed in a rebound at 12:59 of the third. The loss was only the fourth in 18 games for the No. 14 Mavericks (16-9-3, 10-9-1).
The Gophers do not play again until Feb. 8-9 at No. 16 St. Cloud State. Lucia was much happier Saturday with his team's willingness to do the grunt work of blocking shots and battling in front of the net, as well as with it capturing two precious points in a tightly bunched league.
"It was extremely important [to win],'' Lucia said. "We've got to get points every weekend. We've got five straight games on the road against good quality opponents, and it's great to start with a win.''
Friday's 2-1 loss ended the Gophers' 10-game unbeaten streak. Saturday, a strong start boosted their confidence before a crowd announced at 5,134, the fifth-largest ever at the arena.
Holl, who had not scored a goal in 42 games, got the Gophers rolling with an unassisted goal at 12:34 of the first. He stripped the puck from Lehrke and raced to the net, pushing it past goalie Stephon Williams as he crashed into the goal.
The Gophers got their first power-play opportunity at 17:19 of the first period, when the Mavericks' Zach Palmquist was called for interference. They replaced the disjointed effort of recent games with smooth, efficient execution. Schmidt, set up by Budish and Kyle Rau, beat Williams from the slot at 18:11 for a 2-0 lead.
Wilcox shut out the Mavericks for the first 52:59 until a defensive breakdown allowed the trailing Lehrke to blast in the rebound of Bryce Gervais' shot. The Mavericks appeared to have scored again 27 seconds later, but officials ruled that Johnny McInnis's goal had been deflected in off his hand and disallowed it.
The Gophers blocked 30 of the Mavericks' 69 shot attempts and killed both their power-play chances. Wilcox made 26 saves to improve his record to 17-3-4.
During the bye week, Lucia said, the Gophers will work on details such as five-on-three power plays and pulled-goalie situations. He wants to freshen his team mentally while keeping it sharp and on task, and he hopes to improve its consistency for the stretch run.
"We just have to get better,'' Lucia said. "We have to continue to grow as a team. That's the most important thing.''