ANCHORAGE, ALASKA – Opening the season with a road trip to Alaska was intentional for the Gophers men’s hockey team and coach Don Lucia.
Taking 27 players 2,500 miles provided team-building and player-bonding experiences that help create a foundation for the entire season.
But picking up two victories in the 49th state was also paramount. Mission accomplished on both fronts.
The Gophers opened the season 2-0, beating Alaska 6-3 in a neutral-site game at Sullivan Arena on Sunday night.
“That’s what I told the guys after, that the goal was to obviously win two games,” Lucia said. “It would have been disappointing not to win two. The goal was [also] to get them to Alaska. A lot of them have never been here before.”
The Gophers were unable to solve Nanooks goaltender Jesse Jenks on the power play, but they did solve him shorthanded — twice. The Gophers also answered with a goal when Alaska pulled within 3-2 and 4-3.
“Fairbanks (1-1) had some good pushback,” captain Justin Kloos said. “They made it difficult on us. We didn’t have our best stuff tonight but we were able to gut it out and get the win.”
In the first period, Alaska was on the power play with Ryan Collins off for interference. A shot from the slot caromed off Gophers goalie Eric Schierhorn to Tyler Sheehy along the half way, and Sheehy was off to the races.
The sophomore from Burnsville raced up ice on a 2-on-1 with Tommy Novak. Sheehy held the puck across the blue line, used Novak as a decoy and snapped a hard wrist shot off Jesse Jenks’ blocker for a 1-0 lead at 12:48. Schierhorn picked up his second career assist in his return to his home state.
With Collins still in the box, Alaska’s Zach Frye teed off from the blue line only 26 seconds later, tying the score and ending 73 minutes of shutout hockey in Alaska for Schierhorn. But the Gophers opened up offensively in the second and jumped to a 3-1 lead on goals by Brent Gates, a one-timer off a Ryan Norman pass, and Vinni Lettieri, who banged a shot off Jenks’ shoulder after a drop pass from Rem Pitlick.
Austin Vieth’s tip-in in the second period pulled the Nanooks within 3-2, but the Gophers responded by striking shorthanded for the second time with just 1:34 left in the period. Kloos converted a breakaway on the backhand after a pretty pass from Mike Szmatula spotted him.
“I knew that they were changing, and I thought maybe we had a little breakaway here,” Kloos said of the play set up. Szmats fed me in the middle, and I was able to sneak one inside the post. I was trying to go over the pads but it dribbled. I’ll take it.”
Alaska made it 4-3 with just under seven minutes left, but Ryan Zuhlsdorf effectively ended the Nanooks’ comeback hopes just over a minute later when he banked in off the post from the faceoff circle. Sheehy added an empty-netter with 30 seconds left.
“We did enough to win it,” Lucia said. “But they made us work for it from start to finish.”