Men’s hockey: Gophers, Jack LaFontaine blank Notre Dame again

Sometimes there are no caveats or explanations or excuses needed. When you have a deep and talented hockey team, sometimes things just click.

The Minnesota Gophers, despite a few bumps in the road along the way recently, are a deep and talented hockey team, and played perhaps their most complete and dominant weekend of their 100th season over a 24-hour span in South Bend, Ind.

Jack Lafontaine posted his second consecutive shutout, becoming the first Gophers goalie to do that in a decade, as Minnesota beat Notre Dame 3-0 again on Saturday, sweeping the road series and emphatically re-claiming the Big Ten Conference lead with six games to play. They improved to 17-5-0 overall.

Linemates Sampo Ranta and Brannon McManus each had a goal and an assist, and Nathan Burke scored as well in the Gophers’ bounce-back after they were swept at home by Wisconsin last weekend. LaFontaine finished with 28 saves in his fifth shutout of the season.

The first period was all about LaFontaine. The Irish had managed 24 shots in Friday’s game, also won 3-0 by the Gophers. The senior goalie faced 15 shots in the opening 20 minutes on Saturday, as the Irish came out with a fierce determination to take an early lead. They did not, as the opening period ended 0-0.

“We knew they were going to have a strong pushback. They’re a very well-coached team,” said LaFontaine, who finished with 28 saves for his fifth shutout of the season. “For me it was about getting into a flow right away and making sure I hold that flow for the entirety of the game. These guys are a very, very tough team to play against.”

Everything changed in the second period, as the Gophers took over the game, getting three pucks past Irish goalie Ryan Bischel, although only two of them would count.

They got on the board first via one of the prettier goals of the season. With Irish defenseman Nick Leivermann draped all over him, Sampo Ranta was still able to slip a no-look backhand pass across the top of the crease to McManus, who had a tap-in for his seventh goal of the season. It was a tour de force by Ranta all night, as he played physically and added his team-best 14th goal of the season in the third.

“He was physical tonight, he was aggressive and he got inside the paint, and that’s when he’s at his best,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. “He keeps growing, he keeps maturing, he keeps getting better, and it was a big goal to get that third one. That whole line played very well tonight.”

Barely two minutes later, Burke doubled the score, grabbing an Irish turnover and snapping a quick shot past Bischel. It was the third goal of the season for Burke, who had been a healthy scratch from the lineup on Friday.

The Gophers appeared to take a 3-0 lead on a pretty top shelf shot by Blake McLaughlin from one knee at the side of the crease. Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson challenged the play for offside, and after a lengthy video review, it appeared that a Gophers defenseman had entered the zone ahead of the puck by a tiny fraction, and the goal was disallowed.

“I felt awful because it was a bad offsides. We had no business going offside on that play,” Motzko said. “What a great play all the way around. We kept it in the zone and it was a highlight goal, so I’m crushed for (McLaughlin).”

Bischel, a sophomore from Medina, Minn., who had not played since beating the Gophers in Minneapolis last month, finished with 25 saves for Notre Dame (10-11-1).

The last Gophers goalie with back-to-back shutouts in a series was Kent Patterson, who blanked Sacred Heart 9-0 and 6-0 to open the 2011-12 season in Minneapolis. LaFontaine was pulled in the second period of the Gophers’ 8-1 loss to Wisconsin last Saturday, and he responded with his best weekend as a collegian.

“He’s one of those players that is so well-prepared,” McManus said. “I think he really took it personally and really dialed it in this weekend to make sure he was going to be on his game. We needed him when we needed him, and he made some absolutely unbelievable saves for us.”

The Gophers return home next weekend for a two-game Friday-Saturday series with Michigan State.

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