Leading up to this weekend's home-and-home series against Minnesota Duluth, Gophers men's hockey coach Bob Motzko expressed concern about how his team would handle one particular Bulldog.
"Number 7, he's a different challenge,'' Motzko said.
Turns out, he was absolutely right because Number 7 – also known as Scott Perunovich – did a number on the Gophers.
Perunovich, an All-America defenseman the past two seasons, scored a goal and set up two others as two-time defending national champion Minnesota Duluth defeated the Gophers 5-2 on Friday night at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
"He's one of the best players in college hockey,'' Motzko said. "That's what best players do.''
Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin concurred. "He can do that, and we need him to do that,'' he said of the junior from Hibbing.
In front of a festive crowd of 9,407, the Gophers (3-2) got a goal and an assist from both sophomore Sammy Walker and freshman Ben Meyers, who was moved to the top line during the game. Motzko's young team, which features 11 freshmen, will try to take Friday's lessons into Saturday night's series finale in Duluth.
"They don't feel the pressure as much as some of our younger guys,'' Meyers said of the Bulldogs. "That's where we're trying to get.''
Minnesota Duluth entered Friday's game with a surprising 1-3 record after being swept at Wisconsin last weekend. Motzko expected an ornery opponent, and that was the case with UMD dominating play in the first period, outshooting the Gophers 12-8 and out-attempting them 20-11.
"The intensity of the game, we hadn't seen in our first four,'' Motzko said. "You could tell in the first period that they brought the intensity and we were on our heels.''
Perunovich helped stake the Bulldogs to a 1-0 lead at 7:31 of the period when he passed to Kobe Roth, who tipped the puck past Gophers goalie Jack LaFontaine (19 saves).
Minnesota made a big push early in the second, with both Walker and Sampo Ranta having a pair of scoring opportunities in the first three minutes. "We knew they were going to come hard right away and that we'd have to weather the storm,'' Perunovich said.
The Bulldogs did just that, and more, with Brandon Puricelli tipping in Nick Wolff's shot for a 2-0 lead at 7:24.
Perunovich fed Jackson Cates with a beautiful cross-ice pass for a power-play goal at 14:53 to make it 3-0. "That pass he made to Jackson – not many guys can make that play,'' Sandelin said.
Meyers, on a backhand pass from Walker, scored his first collegiate goal with 11 seconds left in the second to trim the UMD lead to 3-1. And Walker made it 3-2 at 8:36 of the third, beating goalie Hunter Shepard (18 saves) after a pass from Meyers.
The Bulldogs, however, pushed back with Koby Bender's goal at 9:45, then Perunovich's dagger on a power play at 15:11.
"The game caught traction a couple times, and every time we did, I was seeing Perunovich,'' Motzko said. "He was the difference in the game.''
Motzko wants his squad to mature from what transpired Friday against a championship team.
"It was a grow-up game for our team,'' he said. "Their experience was all over the rink. It's a game that I think is going to make us better.''