Opening a new season with a new coach against the defending national champions, No. 13 Minnesota looked to survive the weekend before having two weeks off to get on the same page.
The Gophers will still have the two weeks off to practice and play exhibition games. The team will come off a win after scoring three first period goals en route to defeating top-ranked Minnesota-Duluth 7-4 at home Sunday.
“There was some juice in the building. I got excited and that fed over to our players,” said Minnesota (1-0-1, 0-0-0-0 Big Ten) head coach Bob Motzko, whose 277th career victory as head coach was his first in maroon and gold. “To score goals like that against a team that doesn’t give up too many goals, it’s a great feel-good weekend for us.”
By beating UMD, the Gophers snapped a nine-game winless streak against the Bulldogs going back to October 2014. No player on the current team had defeated Minnesota Duluth (0-1-1, 0-0-0-0 NCHC), which was a point none needed to be reminded.
“It feels unbelievable. We were pretty close last night,” said senior forward Jack Ramsey, who had been a part of overtime losses and close calls. “I couldn’t think of a better way to start the season; especially the defending national champions, but especially for the seniors it means a lot and means a lot for me.”
Sophomore forward Brannon McManus scored a pair of first-period goals, one of four underclassmen to light the lamp. Fellow sophomore Clayton Phillips finished with a career-high three assists. Phillips, who went without a point in 11 second-half games, had the primary assist on all three.
UMD had gone six games dating back to last season without giving up three goals. Goaltender Hunter Shepard allowed a single goal in Saturday’s 1-1 tie but saw three go by in the first 16:34 Sunday. Senior captain Tyler Sheehy finished a pass by Phillips for his first goal of the season.
“It was exciting for us to pop three in right away and get the crowd into it,” junior forward Rem Pitlick said. “It was a good atmosphere and it was really exciting for our team tonight.”
Noah Cates and Mikey Anderson were able to cut the lead to 3-2 in the second period as UMD held the Gophers without a shot on goal for over 15 minutes.
Outshot 19-3 and called for four second-period penalties, Minnesota made the most of its few opportunities. Sammy Walker scored his first collegiate goal to make it 4-2. Just over a minute later, Pitlick took advantage of someone falling and skated from zone to zone, beating Shepard for a shorthanded goal.
The third period went to the freshmen with first-year players scoring all four goals. Garrett Wait made it 6-2 in the third period with his first collegiate goal to chase Shepard. He was joined later by UMD’s Jackson Cates (twice) and Gopher Sampo Ranta.
Starting the second night in a row, Minnesota goaltender Mat Robson finished with 42 saves.
Pitlick admitted there were a lot of nerves last night, but calming the storm by getting a win and tie against the team which knocked them from an NCAA Tournament berth showed him a little about what the team learned in the opening week of the season.
Still, there is room to grow and with two weeks to practice and be more disciplined. The Gophers took nine penalties Sunday, which gave Minnesota Duluth several opportunities to keep the puck for long stretches and get back in the game.
“We’re a team right now that needs practice,” said Motzko. “I think now, surviving this weekend, to have two exhibition games for the next two weeks with a young team and a very inexperienced D corps we need to have this practice time and get ready for North Dakota.”
“We have a long way to go.”