Though Wisconsin improved its play and threatened its longtime rivals several times, it was apparent in the Gophers’ 3-2 Saturday win that Minnesota was riding a wave of momentum that would not subside.
Coming off of a dominant Friday shutout of Wisconsin, the Gophers (9-4-4, 6-2-2 WCHA) once again proved themselves a Frozen Four contender by completing a weekend sweep of the fading Badgers (5-11-0, 1-7-0 WCHA).
Gopher senior defender Matt DeMarchi and junior left wing Dan Welch led all players this weekend with two points in the series (one goal, one assist each).
The Gophers faced a new test Saturday in Wisconsin goalie Bernd Bruckler (40 saves, three goals against), who entered the game as the conference leader in goals against average and save percentage. The challenge was met as Minnesota put up 43 shots to Wisconsin’s 17.
“We’re doing things well in practice but then we can’t convert it to the game,” Badger forward Brad Winchester said. “That’s pretty frustrating.”
Wisconsin took the first lead of the game at the start of the second period, but gave way by the next intermission, allowing Minnesota a 2-1 lead.
The Badgers tied the game in the third but were beaten towards the end of regulation by DeMarchi. Wisconsin took a man advantage by pulling the goalie with under a minute left, but was only able to give Minnesota a scare.
“I think work ethic was inconsistent tonight at times and, to be real honest, I was actually disappointed in the way we came out,” UW head coach Mike Eaves said.
A minority of Gopher faithful was often the most audible part of the near-14,000 strong crowd in Madison. At several points in the game Wisconsin’s home-ice advantage was negated by the shouts from the maroon and gold sections.
The first period saw a Badger team that could muster very little offense the night before threaten for several goals. While two penalties to Gopher star Troy Riddle provided opportunities for the UW power play, Wisconsin’s scoring drought continued. As opposed to the previous night, however, the Badgers made Minnesota goalie Travis Weber (15 saves, two goals against) work for his saves.
Weber, coming off of his first shutout of the season, braved several furious attacks while, on the other side of the ice, Bruckler did likewise in making 15 saves and remaining steadfast even in the face of a fluid Gopher power play.
Though a near shorthanded goal at the start of the game caused Wisconsin fans to fear a repeat of Friday night’s performance, each team was able to prevent any change in lead throughout the opening period.
“It was a desperate situation and I don’t think we played the way we needed to in the first period, and that was somewhat disappointing,” Eaves said. “You’d think that if a team is desperate they’re gonna do things different, compete harder over the puck, get the loose puck, and we didn’t.”
The second period showcased the fact that each team has no love for the other. Ten penalties were given out (seven for roughing) and, for the second night in a row, multiple fights had to be defused by the referees.
The level of tension did not prevent exciting play. The quickness of the Gopher forwards, combined with their swarming defense, allowed Minnesota to exit the second with a lead. Though allowing two unanswered goals, the Badgers had bright spots of their own, playing with more aggression and determination than usual.
Wisconsin, maligned for falling into slumps when opponents score first, notched the first goal of the game. At 1:19 of the second, Badger defenseman Dan Boeser set up a textbook one-timer for freshman Ryan MacMurchy. Weber made the save, but was not able to prevent MacMurchy from rebounding his blocked shot and coming away with the goal.
Only a few minutes later Minnesota’s Jake Fleming evened the score. Freshman Andy Sertich backhanded the puck from behind the Wisconsin goal to the crease, setting Fleming up for a fast shot into the side of the net.
Minnesota was able to take a 2-1 lead in an unorthodox fashion at 11:00 of the second. Thomas Vanek beat fellow Graz, Austria, native Bruckler with a shot into the crease that deflected off the skate of Badger John Eichelberger and into the net.
The penalties went down in the third period but the scoring continued. Each team contributed one goal in an energized 20 minutes that ended when UW was unable to take advantage of a 6-on-5.
UW ended its string of power-play failures at 7:05 of the third. When it appeared that the Badgers were again being outplayed by the potent Gopher penalty kill, Rene Bourque came away with the puck and scored on a wraparound. It was Wisconsin’s first goal on the man advantage in over a month.
Even a reinvigorated Kohl Center crowd could not save the Badgers, though, as Minnesota forced what was to be the last lead change with 3:23 left.
Despite a myriad of shots and consistent pressure, the Gophers were unable to convert on a power play caused by a Brad Winchester hold. Seconds after the penalty ended, though, the Gophers made a last strike at the net before the defense could set.
The result was a perfect pass from Welch that found DeMarchi on the right side of the net. DeMarchi fired the puck into the top shelf for a 3-2 Minnesota lead.
“If I don’t give up the third goal, it’s a good game for me,” Bruckler said. “Obviously I’m frustrated to give up that third goal and I kinda feel like I let my team down.”
Saturday’s game was Wisconsin’s eighth loss in its last nine games and Minnesota’s fourth straight league victory. Each team breaks from WCHA play until Jan. 3-4, when UM hosts St. Cloud State and Wisconsin plays host to MSU-Mankato.
“We’re looking for that event that will give us some reward for our efforts,” Eaves said. “That didn’t happen tonight.”