MINNEAPOLIS — It is not uncommon to sometimes feel a little down after the rush of the holidays is over.
In their first few minutes of post-holidays hockey, the Minnesota Gophers found themselves down for the initial time this season. But those doldrums did not last long.
Via a trio of goals in a five-minute span of the second period, the Gophers erased that early deficit and rallied for a 4-1 win over Arizona State on Sunday afternoon, improving to a nation’s-best 9-0-0 in the process.
Down 1-0 after 20 minutes, the top-ranked Gophers got goals from Mike Koster, Jonny Sorenson and two from Sampo Ranta to keep their record perfect. Jack LaFontaine, who has played every minute in goal for the Gophers this season, had 27 saves in the win.
“For half the game we were good tonight, and that half was enough for us,” said Gophers coach Bob Motzko, admitting he saw plenty of rust from his team after a break of more than three weeks for the holidays. “And then for half the game we were all over the map. That’s what happens when you’re off for 24 days.”
In Phase 1 of the season, LaFontaine had joked that his team’s defense was too good, and he would sometimes struggle to get engaged in games, only facing a handful of shots in the first period on occasion. By contrast, he was fully engaged right from the start on Sunday, with the Sun Devils pressuring, taking a lead and snapping the Gophers’ penalty kill’s perfect record.
LaFontaine faced 10 shots in the opening period, and a redirection by Kopperud slipped past him early, marking the first time this season the Gophers had trailed. Their penalty kill had been 17-for-17 to that point. But he would not allow another goal, making several saves close to the crease and keeping the Sun Devils (4-7-2) from extending their lead.
“Their goalie played tremendous. He made some really big saves, so huge credit to him,” Arizona State coach Greg Powers said. “We knew how good he’s playing and how good he is, and we saw it firsthand tonight. You’ve got to get in his eyes more and get more bodies to the net if you’re going to score on this kid. He’s playing so well.”
After that rough first 20 minutes, the Gophers’ offense caught up to the goaltending. Koster tied it after a set-up pass by Ben Meyers, who extended his career-best point streak to seven games. Sorenson scored the eventual game-winner off a play that began when Brannon McManus’ long shot produced a juicy rebound. It was the first game back in the lineup since pre-Thanksgiving for McManus, who had missed four games with a lower body ailment.
“He’s a huge player for us. He was getting pucks on net and getting it deep all night,” Sorenson said of McManus, who was the team’s scoring leader when he was injured. “I was just there to bury the empty-netter.”
Ranta, who moved into a tie for the team’s goal-scoring lead with his two-marker afternoon, made it 3-1 on a no-look backhand shot of a loose puck in front of Sun Devils goalie Evan DeBrouwer after two Arizona State defenders collided in front of the net and left the loose puck there.
“I got a good bounce right in front of the net. I knew where the net was, and I tried to roof it and beat the goalie up high,” said Ranta, who got his sixth goal of the season late, after the Sun Devils had killed a five-minute major penalty.
For Motzko, seeing his team bounce back after facing a deficit on the scoreboard for the first time was an encouraging sign. And he was happy that if they had to trail, it came early in a game.
“Being down 1-0 is not adversity, that’s hockey. We took a penalty and they found a little seeing-eye shot through it and were very efficient on their power play,” Motzko said. “We had a lot of clock left on the scoreboard, but we needed to battle back…That was a great response for us to start the second period, where we came out playing the hockey we want to play.”
DeBrouwer finished with 29 saves for the Sun Devils. The series concludes with a 7 p.m. faceoff on Monday evening.