For the first time this season, the Gophers acted their age.
Minnesota Duluth was older, bigger and had been there before — there being the Frozen Four four of the past five years, the only miss being from the pandemic cancelation in 2020.
The Bulldogs outpaced the Gophers 5-3 Friday at 3M Arena at Mariucci in front of an announced crowd of 9,016. The No. 4 Gophers fell to 3-2 while No. 5 Duluth improved to 4-1. The two meet again 7 p.m. Saturday at AMSOIL Arena.
Duluth’s top two lines were filled completely with fifth-year seniors. An additional two graduate students and one senior sprinkled throughout the defense pairings as well. The Gophers, by comparison, fielded five freshmen, including Rhett Pitlick making his debut as the extra skater after an injury kept him out of the first four games.
It took the Bulldogs — who won back-to-back national championships in 2018 and 2019 — fewer than two minutes to score the breakthrough goal. CenterDominic James started the quick play from the faceoff, allowing an unmarked Blake Biondi to fire his shot from the slot past Gophers goaltender Jack LaFontaine.
LaFontaine, the Gophers’ only fifth-year player, made it about six more minutes before traveling Bulldogs fans rained the “Sieve!” cheers down upon him. Duluth winger Quinn Olson smacked a slapshot from the top left circle, taking advantage of a gassed Gophers team toward the end of a shift.
Duluth was outshooting the Gophers 11-3 until Blake McLaughlin drew a hooking penalty. This was a bit of the lifeline for the Gophers, who have looked strong on special teams early this season.
Defenseman Mike Koster was running the second unit from the point when he shot a one-timer at the blue line to beat Duluth netminder Ryan Fanti.
The period break didn’t seem to interrupt the Bulldogs in the slightest, as it took them just under three minutes into the second period to score their third goal.The Gophers left defenseman Owen Gallatin unmanned so he could slide in on one knee past the left circle to catch LaFontaine off guard.
The Gophers defense was a bit flustered by then, as Koster had taken a hard hit into the corner boards a bit before and was nursing his shoulder. He left the ice after that goal and didn’t return to the bench until the third period, though he didn’t take the ice again.
Duluth built its lead to 4-1 about halfway through the second period, when Wyatt Kaiser bounced the puck off LaFontaine’s helmet before diving to score on his own rebound.
Gophers freshman Matthew Knies was able to give the Gophers some late-period adrenaline just as Koster had when he backhanded a shot to bounce past Fanti.
The Gophers seemed to start the third period with a bit more composure, but that soon deteriorated fairly spectacularly. The team earned its second power play of the game but struggled to connect with one another or individually control the puck. Then Sammy Walker took a slashing penalty to end the advantage 14 seconds early. Ben Meyers then exacerbated the problem when the refs called him for holding, giving the Bulldogs a 5-on-3 advantage.
The Bulldogs just needed four seconds with two extra men to score, with Casey Gilling tapping in an easy shot while Gophers defenseman Brock Faber slid past on his stomach, too late for a block.
There was some redemption for the Gophers, though, with the team still down a man. McLaughlin made an astute long pass to Grant Cruikshank, who broke away for a one-on-one with Fanti before beating him.
Fanti ended with 18 saves while LaFontaine made 17. The Bulldogs outshot the Gophers 23-20.