Myers: Line shuffling does the trick as Gophers rebound to beat DU
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MINNEAPOLIS -- There has been myriad discussion and debate about the forthcoming radical realignment in college hockey, and whether it will be good for the game. But for the Gophers, radical realignment of their lineup on Saturday proved to be a hit.
After Friday's lifeless shutout loss to Denver, in which their top two lines contributed next to nothing to the effort, and looked utterly devoid of chemistry, the line chart, and eventually the scoreboard, had a drastically different look.
But it was the one constant - top-line center Nick Bjugstad - who made the biggest difference, scoring (the game-winner) on a third period power play as the Gophers rallied for a 5-1 win over Denver in their final regular season home game.
Coupled with St. Cloud State's blowout home loss to Michigan Tech, a small glimmer of hope for a WCHA title still exists for the Gophers, who travel to Bemidji State for a pair of games next weekend. With just those two games left in the regular season, the Gophers sit tied for second place with North Dakota, trailing the Huskies by two points.
Things are so tight that one scenario for the final weekend of the season could produce a four-way tie for the WCHA title, if North Dakota splits (at Minnesota State), the Gophers split (in Bemidji) and Wisconsin beats St. Cloud State twice in Madison.
Almost as topsy-turvy as the standings were the Gophers line combinations in the hours leading up to Saturday's game. Coach Don Lucia juggled things, had the line charts printed, then juggled again, leading to a second set of Gophers line charts being passed out to the media less than an hour before the first faceoff.
"It was different twice. I had it set up, then I was thinking that I wanted to go back to where we were early in the year to give us a bit more balance," Lucia said, adding that even in early March, no position is secure. "It is a work in progress. We moved some guys around, took a guy out. You're always tinkering until you get things settled."
Still, the Gophers looked far from settled early, falling behind 1-0 after 20 minutes, and nearly trailing 2-0 after Denver appeared to get a second-period power play goal. After a lengthy review, the Pioneers second goal was waved off due to a high stick.
Shortly thereafter, the Gophers finally got their first goal of the weekend on an ugly scramble in front of the Denver net which, replays revealed, involved hand passes, a kicked puck, a Gopher in the crease (although not interfering with Denver goalie Sam Brittain) and finally Zach Budish swatting the puck over the line.
That goal was allowed to count after another a lengthy review. Before the game was over, Minnesota would score on a power play, and Pioneers first line wing Chris Knowlton would be helped off the ice and to the locker room after a violent collision with Gophers defenseman Jake Parenteau. There was no penalty called on the play.
Were he not under threat of fines from the WCHA office, Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky made have had much to say about the officials. Instead he made his feelings clear in other ways.
"I can't make any comments on officiating, so I'm not going to," Gwozdecky said. "So please don't ask me about officiating, I can't. Please don't ask me. Please, please, please don't ask me."
Tied 1-1 with a little more than 10 minutes to play, Gwozdecky felt his team had the Gophers right where they wanted to be, but another penalty, and a pretty power-play goal by Bjugstad, started the Gophers on the way to a blowout. Bjugstad acknowledged that they had gotten an earful from the coaches after Friday's ugly loss. He certainly had an answer on Saturday.
"(Friday) night we got shut out and we were really disappointed," Bjugstad said. "Coaches got on us, which we really deserved. We responded tonight and showed what a hard-working team we can be."
Only two games remain before the playoff pairings are known. But for the Gophers, there is still plenty of hard work needed to end up on top of the far-from-stable league standings.