The Gophers might be a bit too far into the season to be attempting to remedy past mistakes.
And yet, that’s exactly what the team endeavored to do Friday against Arizona State.
In the Gophers’ 5-1 victory against the No. 12 team in the nation, they improved their nonconference record to 4-5-1 with just Saturday’s game left as the regular-season finale. For the Gophers, who are well out of NCAA tournament contention at 21st in USCHO.com’s PairWise rankings, it’s easy to look back at losses to lowly Ferris State and St. Lawrence and wonder if a few more points could have saved them from a must-win Big Ten tournament.
As it is, with home ice locked up for next weekend’s quarterfinals and independent Arizona State having just this series as a ramp up for the NCAA tournament, this weekend became about proving the disappointing Gophers from the beginning of the season are long forgotten.
“We stubbed our toe nonconference this year, and we had a chance at the end to help our nonconference cause,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. “It’s one down, and we’ve got a big one [Saturday]. And it’s going to be a tight hockey game.”
In front of an announced crowd of 7,921 at 3M Arena at Mariucci on Friday, the Gophers improved to 15-15-4 while the Sun Devils fell to 21-11-1. There were many positives to point to, from the Gophers killing off all four of Arizona State’s penalties to converting on two of their own power plays to giving goaltender Mat Robson a surprisingly slow night facing just 15 shots.
But the biggest boon is the depth in scoring, a change from the start of the season, when the same heavy hitters carried the bulk of the goals. In the Gophers’ past five games, of which they’ve won four, the team has scored 17 goals, by 11 different players.
“When you’ve got four lines, and everybody’s contributing, that’s huge this late in the season,” freshman center Sammy Walker said. “Going into the playoffs, you need that.”
Arizona State, sorely missing injured leading scorer Johnny Walker, scored just once, at 3 minutes, 53 seconds in the first period from senior winger Jake Clifford. Then the Gophers’ Walker leveled the score thanks to his speed at 15:47 in the first.
Fellow freshman Blake McLaughlin added a second-period strike. Junior defenseman Tyler Nanne netted a goal 40 seconds into the third period. Top scorer Rem Pitlick put in a fourth on the power play at 9:42 in the third. And senior Brent Gates Jr. followed with another power-play tally at 16:06.
In all, the Gophers stacked up 42 shots.
“It’s huge to spread out offense because you do, you start building on it,” Motzko said. “How many times you see somebody lead your team in scoring in the playoffs that was sixth in the regular season? That’s magic. You’ve got to get one to get started. And we’ve got five [Friday].”
The goal now is to sweep the ranked team and gain some imperative momentum.
Nanne said his team’s game is solid but hasn’t peaked: “Not yet. I know we’ve got more in the tank.”