DULUTH – The lights were turned down in Amsoil Arena and the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs gathered at the north end of the ice sheet. The Minnesota Gophers were crowded onto the visitors bench and waiting for the ceremony to unfold on Saturday night.
The Bulldogs would be hanging a national championship banner for men’s hockey, and this one for 2018 would be paired with another from 2011. The Gophers have five back in Mariucci Arena, but the most-recent came in 2003.
The Gophers’ standing as the power of Minnesota collegiate hockey had declined substantially over those 15 years, and now they were watching as the representatives of the sister school up north accepted final accolades for the upset run that ended with a 2-1 victory over Notre Dame in St. Paul last April.
The video board showed a series of familiar Bulldogs from the past, offering congratulations, and then the banner was revealed.
Bob Motzko could have had the Gophers stay in the locker room. He chose to have them on the bench. Why was that?
“A couple of reasons,” Motzko said. “One of the things in college sports is the camaraderie. We’re from Minnesota. That’s another team from our state. We should be out there.
“And, why sit in the locker room? Let our players get a feel of what it’s like.”
This was Motzko’s first game and his Gophers now know what it’s like to play on even terms with the preseason No. 1 on its home ice. Final: Gophers 1, UMD 1, on a first period goal from Gophers freshman Sampo Ranta, and a third-period goal on a power play finished by UMD’s Peter Krieger.
There was a 5-minute overtime when UMD was looking a bit more dangerous in the final three minutes, and then that was it. No 3-on-3, no shootout. What everyone learned was that amidst the confusion, teams are not permitted to go past the 5-on-5, 5-minute OT in nonconference games.
“All the fans were waiting for 3-on-3, everyone was waiting,” Motzko said. “How dumb that they made that change … and I’m going to get in trouble.”
Not really. When you have a sport where ties are settled by conference whim, there is sarcasm to be offered.
Plus, Motzko might have felt he was in more trouble the first couple of times that Scott Perunovich, the sophomore from Hibbing, took the puck from his defensive end and started rocketing toward the Gophers’ zone.
The fact that the Gophers were able to hold Perunovich without an official shot on goalie Mat Robson was one of the upsets of the evening.
“Perunovich … it’s stupid how good he is,” Motzko said. “I’m kind of used to it. I liked it a lot better when he was on my side for a couple of weeks last winter.”
Motzko coached the U.S. team in the World Juniors for the second time. Perunovich was one of three UMD freshmen defensemen on that U.S. team, along with Mikey Anderson and Dylan Samberg.
They were all on the ice Saturday night, trying to start a season as defending champs with a win, and the Gophers came away with a tie.
Not bad, coach.
“I thought overall there was a lot to like,” Motzko said. “Those first four penalties our defensemen took, three behind the play, those weren’t good penalties, and it cost us the tying goal.
“Beyond that, we did a good job retrieving the puck. Our transition on offense was a ‘C.’ Defensively, it was better than that. We have a season that starts in football and ends in baseball, and you’re not going to be good at this time — playing this early.
“We’re going to be better, and you know they are going to get better.”
Ranta had the Gophers’ goal at 12:07 of the first with a quick-release bullet past Hunter Shepard, UMD’s heroic goalie in the NCAA run. Krieger tied it with a power-play goal early in the third period.
Ranta is an 18-year-old from Finland. He had signed with Wisconsin, was given a release late in the summer and enrolled at Minnesota in late August.
According to reports in Madison, Ranta was not admitted to Wisconsin because of an academic hurdle. Whatever, Motzko had him on the first line at left wing for Game 1, and it sounds like Ranta will stay there.
“He’s going to be a special player,” Motzko said.
Sandelin said: “We got better. We had chances in the second part of the third period, and then in the overtime. I thought their goalie was good. [Shepard] was good, too.”
As for starting the season ranked No. 1, the UMD coach said: “Somebody has to be put there. College hockey has so much balance now, there isn’t such a thing as a No. 1.”