MINNEAPOLIS -- After more than 60 minutes of tightly-played hockey, the Minnesota Gophers resorted to a proven, reliable formula for producing a much-needed goal. They got the puck to Sammy Walker.
The Gophers’ sophomore co-captain, named the Big Ten’s top rookie last season, got a loose puck and center ice and took it 100 feet to the back of the Niagara net, lifting the U of M to a 3-2 overtime win in their home opener.
Sampo Ranta and Jonny Sorenson scored third period goals for the Gophers (2-1-0) who trailed after 40 minutes, took the lead, held on after Niagara tied the game then emerged with a victory. Goalie Jack LaFontaine, making his second start for the Gophers, finished with 25 saves for his first win in maroon and gold.
Niagara (0-1-0) got goals from Jack Billings and Cam Cook and pressured the Gophers throughout, but could not contain Walker in the first minute of overtime. During a 2-on-1 break to the Niagara net, Walker saw he had a lane to the net, and a shot.
“It was a 2-on-1 and the (defense) was kind of taking away the pass, so I just shot it,” Walker said. “It’s always good to get the win. We probably could’ve come out of there without the overtime, but we got the win.”
The second period saw the Gophers possess the puck for long stretches, but not many of those pucks made their way to Eagles goalie Brian Wilson. Niagara out-shot the home club 10-3 in the period, and got the game’s first goal in the final minute before the horn. Gophers center Scott Reedy was carrying the puck up ice when Niagara forward Brandon Stanley plucked it off Reedy’s stick and passed to Billings, who re-directed the puck past LaFontaine before the goalie could cover the side of the net.
The Gophers finally got a puck past Wilson in the third period. On a power play, defenseman Robbie Stucker’s shot from the blue line made its way through a crowd in front of the net, deflecting off Ranta’s leg for a 1-1 tie. Just 65 seconds later the home team took the lead when a trio of freshmen worked down low for a goal. Defenseman Ryan Johnson got the puck to forward Ben Meyers, and Meyers fed Sorenson for a close-range shot that produced a 2-1 lead.
But as had happened a week earlier at Colorado College, the Gophers saw the lead slip away, when Cook scored on a shot from the blue line for the Eagles. The end result was a positive for Gophers coach Bob Motzko, but he said his team dodged a bullet from a determined Purple Eagles team.
“They played a very conservative, very intelligent hockey game,” Motzko said. “They weren’t going to beat themselves. We had to get in and try to beat them. We won the game. There’s the positive, and we’re going to be a lot better tomorrow.”
Wilson finished with 25 saves for Niagara, which put intense pressure on the Gophers in the final few minutes of regulation.
“The last five minutes I thought we were really, really good,” said Niagara coach Jason Lammers. “Unfortunately, the wrong guy has it on his stick at the end of the game. But I was really impressed by our guys.”
The Gophers had a 12-6 lead in shots after the scoreless first period, although that is not how it was initially called on the ice. A Niagara breakaway late in the first period had Ryan Naumovski in alone on LaFontaine, with a quick shot that appeared to beat the goalie. Officials called the play a goal initially, but video review showed the puck had hit the goalpost and didn’t cross the line.
First period — No scoring. Penalties — Bench (Served by Brannon McManus), MIN (too many men), 1:04; Brandon Stanley, NU (interference), 5:39.
Second period — 1. NU, Jack Billings 1 (Stanley), 19:47. Penalties -- None.
Third period — 2. MIN, Sampo Ranta 2 (Robbie Stucker, Jackson LaCombe), 5:53, (pp). 3. MIN, Jonny Sorenson 1 (Ben Meyers, Ryan Johnson), 6:58. 4. NU, Cam Cook 1 (Harpur, Noah Delmas), 8:05. Penalties — Jared Brandt, NU (hooking), 3:18; Nathan Burke, MIN (roughing), 4:06; Chris Harpur, NU (roughing), 4:06; Jordan Wishman, NU (tripping), 4:35.
Overtime — 3. MIN, Sammy Walker 2 (Blake McLaughlin, Lacombe), 0:46. Penalties — None.
Shots on goal — NU 6-10-11-0—27; MIN 12-3-12-1—28. Goalies — Brian Wilson, NU (28 shots-25 saves); Jack LaFontaine, MIN (27-25). Power plays — NU 0-of-1; MIN 1-of-3. Referees — Cameron Lynch, Joseph Carusone. Linesmen — Johnathan Morrison, Matthew Gerlach. Att. — 7,294.