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Updated: December 30th, 2011 11:23pm
Renewed Gophers dominate Niagara, despite absence of Rau and Bjugstad

Renewed Gophers dominate Niagara, despite absence of Rau and Bjugstad

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The No. 2-ranked Gophers made it clear Friday they are ready for the second half of the season.

There were no signs of any negative effects from a three-week winter break as they returned to action on Friday in an abrasive manner, baffling a hapless Niagara squad for a 5-1 victory in the first round of the annual Mariucci Classic.

"To win 5-1, to out-shoot your opponent like that and out-compete them like that after 20 days (off), you can't ask for much more," right wing Jake Hansen said.

The absence of leading scorers Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau -- both of whom are participating in the World Junior hockey championships this week -- was hardly noticed. The Purple Eagles offered little resistance and in turn the Gophers responded with contributions coming from throughout their roster.

"Guys were stepping up into different roles. That was the biggest thing -- who was going to pick up the slack?" defenseman Nate Schmidt said.

Five players (Nick Larson, Hansen, Erik Haula, Justin Holl and Zach Budish) scored off of the team's 43 shots on goal. Haula, Hansen and Schmidt fronted the assault, notching two points apiece. "U" goaltender Kent Patterson's bid at perfection was denied as a result of a meaningless Niagara goal in the third period, but he was an otherwise foreboding force in net, turning away 21  shots.

Winning on Friday nights has been a source of anguish for the Gophers. Prior to facing Niagara, they had lost four of their last five weekend openers. It was a statistic the team went about correcting in a big way.

"We were excited to be back on the ice and get after this Friday night thing that has been haunting us for the last couple of weeks," Schmidt said. "It's good to respond the way we did. We jumped on them right away and tried to not let them get any offense."

The lopsided victory sets the Gophers up for a meeting with Northeastern on Saturday, with a chance to win the Mariucci Classic for the first time since 2008.

The skinny

Concerns of a letdown from the long layoff were put to rest quickly.

Niagara wasn't ready for the Gophers' strong offensive attack coming out of the opening face-off. Boasting a quicker and more athletic team, the "U" went after the Purple Eagles right away, and got nearly immediate results.

Less two minutes had passed when left wing Nick Larson redirected a rebound past goaltender Cody Campbell in a scrum in front of the net to thrust the Gophers into the lead first for the 16th time this season.

They didn't wait long to offer a follow-up.

Taking to the same strategy as their first goal, the Gophers continued to berate Campbell up front until Hansen broke through with a tip-in for his ninth goal on the year.

Though the tempo slowed slightly through the first period and into the second, Niagara remained in a state of disillusionment, trailing 2-0 with no answer to the onslaught it was facing.

Prime scoring chances kept coming for the Gophers, but Campbell and the Purple Eagles' defense was more resolved in the early goings of the second period. That renewed defensive effort finally came to a jarring halt five minutes from the second intermission. The Gophers' first line contributed its second goal of the game off a forceful slap-shot from Haula to the right of the net.

Niagara's woes were further confounded seconds before the end of the second period after Hansen's pinpoint pass set up defenseman Justin Holl for an easy top shelf goal that caught Campbell sprawled out on the ground.

The shutout was broken shortly following the second intermission, but it did nothing to alter the game's momentum.

A change in goaltenders for the Purple Eagles also came at no avail. Gophers assistant captain Zach Budish added a goal for emphasis in the tail-end of the closing frame. They had an opening to increase their total to a half dozen, however, the goal ended up being waved off.

Turning point

The Gophers had their fate firmly locked in place early on.

Their rapid two-goal start crippled Niagara, keeping them in submission for the remainder of the contest. Rarely this season have the Gophers been able to compile a dominating 60 minutes as they did Friday.

Numbers game

14-2: Gophers' record this season when scoring first.

24:42: Time elapsed before the Gophers' first penalty, which came at the 16:18 mark in the second period off a tripping call on Holl. They ended up in the penalty box three more times, but Niagara went 0-for-4 on the power play.

Overheard

"We weren't really worried about Bjugstad and Rau being out. We have a lot good players on this team and knew it wasn't going to be a big issue. Obviously, they are big part of our team, but we have guys stepping up if we need them to and tonight was a good example of that."

-- Erik Haula, addressing the lack of the Gophers' two scoring leaders, who account for an average of a goal-and-a-half per game.

"Coaches keep talking about the non-conference games. We're 3-2-1 right now, and that is something we have to be better at. We've thrown away some wins and ties against teams we felt we should have beat."

-- Jake Hansen, on the the Gophers' emphasis of finishing its non-conference slate with a winning record -- they have games against Northeastern and Notre Dame remaining.

Summary

First period

• Gophers -- Nick Larson (3), assisted by Jake Parenteau (1) and Nate Schmidt (21), 1:58. Gophers 1, Niagara 0

• Gophers -- Jake Hansen (9), assisted by Sam Warning (4) and Seth Helgeson (6), 3:06. Gophers 2, Niagara 0

Second period

• Gophers -- Erik Haula (10), assisted by Nate Schmidt (22), 15:39. Gophers 3, Niagara 0

• Gophers -- Justin Holl (3), assisted by Jake Hansen (12) and Erik Haula (17), 19:31. Gophers 4, Niagara 0

Third period

•Niagara -- Tyler Matthews (1), assisted by Kevin Ryan (5), 2:23. Gophers, 4, Niagara 1

• Gophers - Zach Budish (5) on the power play, assisted by Sam Warning (11) and Jake Hansen (13), 13:21. Gophers 5, Niagara 1

Three stars

1. Jake Hansen
2. Erik Haula
3. Nate Schmidt

Coming up

Northeastern awaits the Gophers in the championship game of the Mariucci Classic on Saturday (6 p.m. 1500 ESPN). The Huskies surrendered a one-goal, third period lead to Princeton in Game 1, but ultimately survived the scare in a prolonged 1-0 shootout -- Justin Daniels' game-winner came after both sides were stopped on a combined 15 straight attempts.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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