All season long, Gophers coaches have tried to deliver a simple message. College hockey is hard. And if you're going to win, you need to accept — even relish — that reality.
That wisdom hasn't always gotten through. Saturday, the No. 6 Gophers heard it loud and clear, embracing the grind on their way to a 4-1 victory over Notre Dame. Against the physical, defensive-minded Irish, they stayed on task throughout the game, scoring three goals in a row to break a 1-1 tie and earn a split in the weekend series.
Rhett Pitlick netted the opening and closing goals at 3M Arena at Mariucci. Defenseman Ryan Chesley's first of the season, scored at 8 minutes, 27 seconds of the second period, stood up as the game-winner.
No. 17 Notre Dame came to Minnesota with one of the nation's top goaltenders, Ryan Bischel of Medina, and the seventh-best scoring defense in Division I. Saturday, the Gophers scored the second-most goals the Irish have allowed this season and ended their seven-game unbeaten streak.
Following a 4-2 loss in Friday's series opener, Gophers coach Bob Motzko blamed three of the team's four defeats on a lack of maturity. He loved the spirit and effort Saturday, but to show real growth, the Gophers need to keep it going.
"We've been really good one night a week,'' Motzko said. "We were OK [Friday], but OK doesn't cut it.
"They've got to understand how hard it is to create offense. How hard it is to hang in a game, to buckle up. We've got six [games] to go before the break, and every one's going to be the same."
In Friday's opener, Motzko saw the Gophers get frustrated when they didn't score. That led to what he called "elementary mistakes," and a loss in a game where they led 1-0 and outshot Notre Dame 34-23.
That's been an issue throughout the season. Sometimes, the Gophers stand strong. Sometimes, they "go off script," Motzko said, abandoning their discipline and straying from the sharp execution they typically show in practice. Notre Dame pushed them hard Saturday, and this time, they pushed back in moments when the Irish could have taken control.
Pitlick scored at 2:10 of the first period, snatching a loose puck that popped out from behind the Irish net and beating Bischel. Notre Dame's Carter Slaggert tied it at 16:38 when he flipped a rebound over goaltender Justen Close in a goalmouth scramble.
The Irish kept the heat on early in the second period, but the Gophers withstood it—and regained the lead on Chesley's snipe from the right circle. Nelson made it 3-1 later in the second period, collecting a rebound and scoring on the backhand as the Gophers outshot the Irish 12-6 in the period.
Close tied his season high with 37 saves and got timely help from his teammates, whose gritty defense held Notre Dame in check. The Irish racked up 18 shots on goal to the Gophers' nine in the third period, and they attempted 73 shots in the game, 17 more than the Gophers.
Gophers defenseman Mike Koster, who assisted on both of Pitlick's goals, was proud that his team avoided any letdowns. But like his coach, he won't be truly satisfied until the Gophers show they can do it on repeat.
"We are a young team,'' Koster said. "But we've got 12 games under our belt now. We need to start making that next step. We can't just do it for one game a weekend."