As chagrined as he was by Friday’s loss to Notre Dame, Gophers coach Bob Motzko knew the pendulum would swing back. It always has during this seesaw season, when the Gophers have constantly swerved from good to bad and back again.
He didn’t have to wait long. The Gophers rebounded from that series-opening clunker in short order Saturday, with a 2-1 victory over the 16th-ranked Irish at 3M Arena at Mariucci. One night after fumbling away a two-goal lead in a game Motzko called “a very poor effort,’’ the Gophers fought from start to finish, ending the Big Ten regular-season schedule on the upswing.
A stout defense and just enough offense moved the Gophers back in front of Notre Dame for second place in the league standings. After Tyler Nanne gave the Gophers an early lead at 8 minutes, 53 seconds of the first period, Irish forward Alex Steeves tied it in the second period. The Gophers got the winner from Scott Reedy at 9:28 of the second, then withstood a frantic Irish onslaught in the final minutes.
Nanne said the Gophers’ motto on Saturday was: Not again. The team had a “come-to-Jesus meeting,’’ with a message that every player needed to know his job and do it well. The result kept the Gophers in the hunt for home ice in the first round of the Big Ten playoffs.
“Too many times, we have a good weekend, and then lay an egg,’’ said Nanne, who had a team-high four shots on goal and blocked three Irish shots. “The stakes are high coming down to the end of the season. We needed it, and we answered the bell.’’
Goaltender Mat Robson anchored a defense that blocked 14 shots and prevented the swift Irish offense from getting the equalizer. Robson made 26 saves, with 13 of those in the third period.
While Motzko said another Gophers goal would have put him more at ease, he praised his team for showing such grit in the kind of tense, low-scoring game it can expect to see in the postseason.
“It was a hard-fought hockey game,’’ Motzko said. “We had an attack tonight, and (Robson) was strong when we needed him. We needed a bounce-back night, and we got it.’’
Though they have made a habit of following good performances with poor ones, the Gophers were surprised by their Friday flop after a lively week of practice. The players vowed to be more accountable in the series finale and came out with good energy in the first period.
Nanne got them going with a goal from the slot off a nice pass from Rem Pitlick. Notre Dame roared back, outshooting the Gophers 7-0 late in the period and pulling even at 4:50 of the second on Steeves’ wraparound goal.
This time, the Gophers did not wilt. Fourth-line winger Garrett Wait, playing for the first time in seven games, found Reedy in the right circle for the go-ahead goal, and the defense made sure it was enough.
The Gophers must finish among the top four in the Big Ten standings to have home ice for the best-of-three first round March 8-10. Notre Dame, Michigan and Penn State all are within four points of the Gophers, and all have two games remaining.
Motzko felt confident his team would play well Saturday, since it has had plenty of practice at turning things around. That didn’t make him any less pleased.
“They know it’s in their DNA,’’ he said. “They’ve always bounced back. That’s one thing I’ll give this group credit for. They are a good group of young men. And it gets hard, but they will bounce back.’’