No. 5 Gophers rebound behind Walker and LaFontaine to blank Irish, 3-0

John Fineran
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — The Minnesota and Notre Dame hockey teams which showed up on a chilly Friday night inside the Compton Family Ice Arena were the polar opposites of themselves last weekend.

That was good news for Golden Gophers coach Bob Motzko and bad news for his Notre Dame counterpart Jeff Jackson.

After being swept at home 4-1 and 8-1 last weekend and falling out of first place in the Big Ten Hockey Conference, Minnesota got a goal and assist from junior captain Sammy Walker and 24 saves and an assist from senior goaltender Jack LaFontaine to blank Notre Dame 3-0 at the near-empty Lefty Smith Rink where the Irish are now 3-9-1 this COVID-19 season.

“Obviously we’re very pleased with our effort and our commitment to how we were going to come in here and play tonight,” said Motzko, who reshuffled his lines after skating his team hard in practice Monday.

Jackson saw the difference in the Gophers from the get-go. “They looked like a team that got swept last weekend; we looked like a team that won big last weekend,” the Irish coach said.

Jackson’s jab was intended. After winning 6-1 and 8-1 last weekend at Ohio State, the Fighting Irish looked anything but explosive and were outshot 33-24 and outplayed for the most part.

“They (the Gophers) are too good a team to turn pucks over on,” Jackson continued. “I thought we did a very poor job managing the puck through the neutral zone, which left us turning the puck over and chasing more than we would prefer to.”

The lone bright spot for the Irish was the play of senior goalie Dylan St. Cyr, who in his eighth straight start turned aside 30 of the 32 shots he faced. Minnesota got goals from Walker on the power play at 11:10 of the first period, off a deflection by Sampo Ranta at 15:35 of the third period and then added an empty-net goal at 19:59 by Blake McLaughlin off a feed from Walker on a 2-on-0 break.

“I can’t blame Dylan on either one of the (first two) goals — he gave us an opportunity to win the game,” Jackson said. “We just didn’t have enough offensively.”

With the victory, the Golden Gophers, ranked No. 1 most of the season including the weekend when Notre Dame swept them 3-2 and 2-1 last month in Minneapolis, returned to first place in the Big Ten over idle Wisconsin, which begins a two-game series Saturday afternoon at fourth-place Michigan. Minnesota (16-5-0 overall, 12-5-0-0-0-0 for 36 points in the Big Ten) is now two points up on the Badgers. Third-place Notre Dame (10-10-1 overall, 8-8-1-1-2-1 for 27 points in the Big Ten) remains four points ahead of the Wolverines.

The Gophers outshot the Irish 10-8 in the first period while taking a 1-0 lead just shortly after the teams exchanged penalties near the middle of the period. Minnesota’s Ben Meyers went off at 8:17 for holding, giving the Irish a power play and Notre Dame, which scored five power-play goals last weekend, pressure LaFontaine early with three shots, two by Alex Steeves and another by Colin Theisen.

But the advantage was wiped out when Jake Pivonka took a good interference penalty to prevent a Gophers breakaway at 9:33. The teams skated 4-on-4 until Meyers penalty expired at 10:17 and for a time it looked like the Irish might escape any damage.

But LaFontaine sent an outlet pass to defenseman Jackson LaCombe, whose pass sent Walker down the slot. Walker quickly wristed a shot past St. Cyr on the goalie’s stick side and the Gophers had a 1-0 lead that stood up to the intermission.

St. Cyr kept the Irish in the game in the second period by making 14 saves, including a couple on Walker and one on a breakaway by Ranta at 5:45. At one point, the Gophers outshot the Irish 10-2 in the first 13:46 of the period until Notre Dame got its footing with a couple of power-play opportunities.

The first Minnesota penalty was a tripping call against defenseman Ryan Johnson, and Notre Dame managed just one shot, a close-in try by Pivonka that the 6-foot-3 LaFontaine stopped.

Then with less than a minute remaining, Minnesota’s 6-foot-4 sophomore center Jaxon Nelson laid out Notre Dame sophomore right wing Solag Bakich at center ice. Bakich stayed on his back for a few seconds before getting to his feet. Meanwhile, the officials looked at the replay and determined that Nelson’s hit made contact to the head, a major penalty and game misconduct at 19:15.

The Irish, who scored three times on a five-minute major in the first period of last Saturday’s 8-1 victory at Ohio State, didn’t get a shot off in the remaining 45 seconds and had 4:15 left on the penalty in the third period.

LaFontaine, who had three shutouts coming into the game, stopped Nick Leivermann and Colin Theisen and then two shots by Bakich at the end of major penalty. The 5-foot-3 goalie later stopped Landon Slaggert at the doorstep at 12:05 to keep the Irish scoreless.

Ranta then deflected home a shot by Brannon McManus at 15:35 to make it 2-0.

“We were stuck in the defensive zone for too long, and generally when that happens, you’re going to break down,” said Jackson, who pulled St. Cyr with 2:19 remaining for the extra attacker. But LaFontaine stopped Leivermann and Theisen in the final minute before the Gophers added McLaughlin’s insurance goal.

The teams conclude their two-game series Saturday afternoon at 5:30.

MINNESOTA 3, NOTRE DAME 0

At Lefty Smith Rink/Compton Family Ice Arena, South Bend

Minnesota 1 0 2—3

Notre Dame 0 0 0—0

First Period—Scoring: 1. Minnesota, Sammy Walker 11 (Jackson LaCombe, Jack LaFontaine) PPG 11:10. Penalties: Minnesota 1-2, Notre Dame 1-2.

Second Period—Scoring: None. Penalties (total): Minnesota 3-17 (4-19), Notre Dame 0-0 (1-2).

Third Period—Scoring: 2. Minnesota, Sampo Ranta 13 (Brannon McManus, Ben Brinkman) EV 15:35. 3. Minnesota, Blake McLaughlin 9 (Sammy Walker) EV/EN 19:59. Penalties (total): Minnesota 0-0 (4-19), Notre Dame 0-0 (1-2).

Shots on goal—Minnesota 33 (10-14-9), Notre Dame 24 (8-6-10). Goalie saves—Minnesota, Jack LaFontaine 24 (8-6-10), Notre Dame, Dylan St. Cyr 30 (9-14-7). Power-play opportunities—Minnesota 1 of 2, Notre Dame 0 of 3. Faceoffs won—Minnesota 18 (8-5-5), Notre Dame 23 (9-8-6). Blocked shots—Minnesota 15 (6-8-1), Notre Dame 21 (7-4-10). Referees—Brett DesRosiers and Sean Fernandez. Linesmen—Bill Hancock and Riley Bowles. Records—Minnesota 16-5-0 (12-5-0-0-0-0 for 36 points and second place in Big Ten), Notre Dame 10-10-1 (8-8-1-1-2-1 for 27 points and third place in Big Ten).

Notre Dame's Solag Bakich skates with the puck as Minnesota's Ryan Johnson backchecks Friday at Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend.
Minnesota’s Jack LaFontaine makes the save as Notre Dame’s Landon Slaggert looks for the rebound Friday at Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend.
Minnesota's Robbie Stucker clears the puck as Notre Dame's Landon Slaggert battles in the crease Friday at Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend.