Junior Bryce Brodzinski scored the game-winning goal in the second period.
The Gophers’ No. 7 men’s hockey (4-3) defeated No. 14 Notre Dame 4-1 at home in their Big Ten opener to return to the winning column and end their losing streak to two games.
“[Our defensemen] were physical, ”said Gophers head coach Bob Motzko. “We took them out a lot tonight… it was probably our best game for our defenders this year. We needed it.
As in their first two periods against Minnesota-Duluth, the Gophers had another slow start against Notre Dame. They didn’t score their first shot on goal until rookie Matthew Knies landed a wrist shot from the lunge 6:34 seconds into the period.
There was a lot of neutral zone play early on, with little attacking zone possession for either team. The Gophers had plenty of opportunities to score high quality goals, but they couldn’t execute their last passes when they were on the Notre Dame side of the ice.
A few minutes before the halfway point of the first period, the Gophers made the penalty kill. They had a shorthanded shot, but elder Sammy Walker’s pass to Grant Cruikshank on a 2-1 failed to connect. They ended up killing the penalty without allowing Notre Dame to find high quality scoring opportunities.
Notre Dame’s Solag Bakich received a pass to the blue line in the middle of the period, entering the attacking zone on a breakaway. However, graduate student goaltender Jack LaFontaine made a huge save. From there, the Gophers started to gain momentum.
“He’s the lifeblood of this team,” said second student Mason Nevers. “It always makes that backup in a timely manner when you need it.”
Junior Ryan Johnson threw a pass to his junior counterpart, Ben Meyers. He skated to the left side of the ice, flew over the boards and did a wrap-around to give the Gophers a 1-0 lead. Meyers’ goal marks his second this season and Johnson’s fourth assist.
“It was nice to be first on the board,” Johnson said. “Our previous game, we didn’t have. We brought it to our attention and then we just tried to get a better start and got the first one.
The Gophers went on the power play late but couldn’t extend their lead as Notre Dame outscored them 9-4 in the first period.
At the start of the second period, the Gophers continued their momentum. Johnson skated on the left side near the boards in the neutral zone and passed to his junior counterpart, Bryce Brodzinski, just before entering the attacking zone.
Then Brodzinski made his way to the top of the right circle and unleashed a low wrist shot into the left side of the net to take the Gophers’ lead to 2-0. His goal marks his fifth this season and Jonhson’s fifth assist.
With 7:45 left in the second period, the Gophers advanced to their second power play of the night, but couldn’t convert. Just before the man advantage ended, Notre Dame’s Graham Slaggert broke in, firing a shot into the slot, but LaFontaine again made a huge save to keep the Fighting Irish off the scoreboard.
The Gophers went on to their second penalty kill of the night with 4:11 seconds left in the second period, and their shorthanded unit got to work. They killed another Notre Dame power play and almost scored right after the kill as Cruikshank provided sophomore Carl Fish a long pass out of the box, but he couldn’t convert the chance to score high quality.
The second period went much better for the Gophers who found their place in the attacking zone and outscored the Fighting Irish 15-10. However, junior Jaxon Nelson was called up for harshness at the end of the period.
The Gophers’ penalty once again remained perfect and kept the Fighting Irish off the scoreboard, killing their third penalty of the game.
However, minutes later, Notre Dame’s Slaggert put the Fighting Irish on the scoreboard 5:31 seconds into the third period. He picked up a loose puck behind the net, made his way to the front of the Gophers goal without scoring, took a shot and beat LaFontaine after another rebound attempt.
The Gophers would add two more goals late in the third period. Nevers received a pass from Knies just before entering the blue line. Nevers did the rest by slipping through the lunge and firing a backhand shot into the upper right half of the net. Then senior Blake McLaughlin added a goal into an empty net with 1.3 seconds left to give the Gophers the 4-1 victory.
“Knies gave me an amazing cross pass,” Nevers said. “[I] had a tête-à-tête, D came, [I] got to the middle … luckily he found his way.
Nevers’ goal marks his fourth this season, while McLaughlin has scored his second.
In their first Big Ten game this season, their penalty kill was perfect 3-3. LaFontaine also finished the night with 28 saves and a .966 save percentage.
“No doubt about it,” Motzko said of the Gophers’ penalty kill which played a huge role in the victory. “We used six killers there from the start, our D was strong, and Jack [LaFontaine] was our best killer. We saw how we did it tonight. “
The Gophers will complete their two-game home streak against Notre Dame as they take on the Fighting Irish on Saturday, October 29 at 5 p.m. at 3M Arena in Mariucci.