MINNEAPOLIS Heading into last weekend, the Minnesota Gophers hockey team had earned the No. 1 ranking in the country based on impressive wins against Boston College (then ranked No. 1) and Notre Dame (No. 2 at the time) but wasn't even leading its own conference.
In its final season in the WCHA, Minnesota didn't take the lead in the conference until last Friday's win against North Dakota and then held onto a share of first place after a tie on Saturday night. In all, seven teams were within three points of the lead in the WCHA, with the Gophers and St. Cloud tied at the top with 22 points.
Losses such as Friday night at home to Minnesota Stateshouldn't come as a shock to followers of the WCHA. But losses like Minnesota's 2-1 loss also become tougher to withstand.
Minnesota State's Brett Knowles scored with 44 seconds left to give the Mavericks (16-8-3, 10-8-1 WCHA) a 2-1 road win against the Gophers on Friday and pushed top-ranked Minnesota (17-4-4, 9-4-4) into second place and snapped the Gophers' unbeaten streak at 10 games.
"Everybody you play is a good team and there's very little separation between anybody," Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. "You've got to make plays at critical points in the game and we didn't make enough plays tonight to win."
With St. Cloud State beating North Dakota on Friday, the Huskies now lead the conference with 24 points. The Gophers and Nebraska Omaha are tied with 22 points and Minnesota State is third with 21 points. Minnesota and theMavericks finish a home-and-home series Saturday in Mankato.
Nate Schmidt scored his fifth goal of the season for the Gophers. Freshman goaltender Adam Wilcox finished with 31 saves. However, Minnesota couldn't solve Minnesota State goaltender Stephon Williams, who had 37 saves, including 20 in the third period.
"We were playing a little bit on our heels and Minnesota obviously showed tonight why they're No. 1 in the country," Mavericks coach Mike Hastings said. "They put the foot to the floor and came after us in the third period. We handled it OK."
Minnesota State handled it because Williams wasn't giving in to Minnesota's high-scoring offense. The Gophers owns the nation's top scoring offense and are fourth in the country on the power play.
But Minnesota has converted one of its last 10 power-play chances and was 0 of 2 on Friday. Lucia agreed when told the power play looked a bit disorganized Friday.
"It looked a lot of disorganized tonight," Lucia said. "It was not very good and it needs to be a whole lot better tomorrow. That was a key part of the game. They scored on the power play, one, and we didn't."
The Gophers know very well they haven't converted on the power play lately and Schmidt said the players are pressing, even though they are still converting 24.1 percent of their chances for the season (28 of 116).
"We're having a tough time getting into a zone and that falls on me," Schmidt said. "We're kind of struggling, teams are throwing different looks at us. It's killing us a little bit. Everything's a little bit harder, everyone's getting a little tense and we know that stat (1 of 10) actually." Schmidt says the offense needs to be better to support Wilcox.
"We've been asking a lot out of a freshman goaltender," Schmidt said. "It's not like we have a senior goaltender, a lot of experience back there. He's been playing really well back there for us and we've been leaning on him a little too much and it's time for us to start pulling our own weight."
Knowles scored with 44 seconds left after Wilcox let a rebound bounce out to Knowles in front of an open right side of the net.
"I think the way both goalies were playing that's the kind of way it looked," Lucia said of the game-winning goal likely coming down to a rebound. "It probably wasn't going to be a clean shot."
Like Friday's game, the WCHA is tight and one play can sway a game and the conference.
"There's no weekends off in the WCHA," Schmidt said. "With how good the league is this year, a team like Mankato is going to come in here; if we have a lackluster first period that's what happens."
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