The 99th edition of the Gophers men’s hockey team introduced itself to the home crowd Friday night, and as first impressions go, a gritty win is better than a pretty loss.
Sophomore forward Sammy Walker beat Niagara goalie Brian Wilson on a 2-on-1 rush 46 seconds into overtime, giving Minnesota a 3-2 victory in its home opener at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
In front an announced crowd of 7,294, the Gophers showed resiliency by rallying from a 1-0 deficit after two periods to take a 2-1 lead in the third. Niagara tied it 2-2 with 11:55 left in regulation, but Walker quickly sent the fans home happy with his second goal of the season.
“We dodged a bullet,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said of his team, which struggled with turnovers all night. “… We’re a little frustrated with how we played.”
The ending, though, gave the Gophers (2-1) the result they needed — for themselves and their fans.
Minnesota’s athletic department is trying to enhance the experience at Mariucci and attract more fans by cutting ticket prices in most areas and making beer and wine available throughout the venue. Those moves and others didn’t lead to a huge crowd — the arena was about 40% full Friday — and the Gophers’ opponent wasn’t one of college hockey’s blue bloods nor did it have a large local appeal. What can draw crowds is a team that contends nationally, and the Gophers, with 11 freshmen on their roster, will have to grow into that.
Count Friday night’s result, which was ragged at times, as a step forward.
“They played a very conservative, very intelligent hockey game,” Motzko said of Niagara, which was playing its first game and was picked to finish second in Atlantic Hockey. “They weren’t going to beat themselves.”
The Gophers overcame the Purple Eagles by getting third-period goals from Sampo Ranta and Jonny Sorenson 1:03 apart and 25 saves from junior goalie Jack LaFontaine, who rebounded after giving up the tying goal 8:05 into the third by making eight saves in the final 10 minutes of regulation. “He was really good when we needed him to be good,” Motzko said.
The game was scoreless until Niagara’s Jack Billings, after a Gophers turnover, took a pass alone by the side of the net and beat LaFontaine with 23 seconds left in the second period.
Minnesota responded with Ranta’s tip-in goal off Robbie Stucker’s shot from the point at 5:53 of the third period. Sorenson, a freshman, made it 2-1 at 6:58 by converting a rebound off Ben Meyers’ shot.
Though Cam Cook tied it for Niagara at 8:05, the Gophers quickly played their trump card in overtime.
Walker collected the puck at center ice and had Nathan Burke on his left on a 2-on-1 rush. The speedy Edina native saw the defenseman commit to Burke, so he blasted the shot past Wilson.
“When I saw him, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s going to be a goal,’ ” Ranta said of Walker.
Said Walker: “The ‘D’ was taking away the pass, so I just shot it.”
And with that shot came a victory and a sense of relief.
“We gave them something to cheer about,” Motzko said of the fans. “It was kind of the hard way, but we gave them something to cheer about.”