All things considered, Minnesota head coach Don Lucia was content with the tie on Friday night. Still, he was displeased with the Gophers’ poor start and knew his team couldn’t afford two straight nights of sloppy first-period hockey.
His captain, junior Ryan Stoa, made sure his coach didn’t have to make the same speech two nights in a row.
Capping a stellar weekend of hockey, Stoa scored two first-period goals — giving him three tallies for the weekend — as the Gophers led from beginning to end, taking three points on the series with a 5-2 victory over Wisconsin Saturday night.
Off the opening faceoff, Stoa took advantage of his linemate — Jay Barriball — poking the puck away from a UW defenseman and right onto his stick. From there, Stoa flipped a backhanded shot past Badger goalie Shane Connelly (23 saves) six seconds into the opening period.
“We always want a start like that. It takes the wind out of their sails (and) shuts the crowd up,” Stoa said. “You can’t ask for a better start than that. We got our butts kicked in the first period last night.”
Eight minutes later, Stoa converted Minnesota (3-0-1 overall, 3-0-1 WCHA) first power play of the weekend, skating across the face of Connelly and burying the puck stick-side.
The power play had been the Gophers’ biggest bugaboo all weekend, especially after going 0-for-10 on Friday night. Although they only converted one of their seven attempts Saturday, that first-period tally proved to be a big momentum swing.
“This year we are scoring some ‘stretch’ goals — to stretch a lead, something we weren’t able to do a year ago,” said Lucia. “It wasn’t the first goal, it was getting that second goal that really helped.”
Trailing 3-0 heading into the third after Minnesota’s Mike Hoeffel scored in the final two minutes of the second period, the Badgers desperately tried to skate back into the game. Twice the Badgers cut the Gopher lead to two, with goals from freshman Matt Thurber (his first collegiate goal) and Podge Turnbull (his second of the weekend).
But every time UW (0-5-1 overall, 0-3-1 WCHA) applied pressure, Minnesota came right back to extend the lead, as the Gophers got third-period goals from Tony Lucia and Barriball to keep UW at bay.
“Every time I thought we were going to break through tonight, we gave up another goal and that was disappointing,” Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves said. “It was a pretty even game in terms of shots and scoring chances and we definitely played better than last night. We showed our competitiveness for 60 minutes (but) at moments where I thought we were going to break through and do something special, that goal took some wind out of our sail.”
After stopping 17 shots Friday night, sophomore Alex Kangas was stellar between the pipes against for Minnesota, stopping 34 of the 36 shots he faced and staying out of harm’s way virtually the entire night, as the Gopher defense made the game fairly relaxing for him.
“We were able to weather a storm, keep our composure and keep our separation,” said Kangas. “It’s always big when you have a couple goal lead and hopefully we can build on that.”
After no combative penalties Friday, the Badgers and Gophers remained friendly no longer. With 9:58 left in the third period, Badger freshman Ryan Little was whistled for a charging penalty on Hoeffel. The result was the Gophers taking exception and the Badgers letting out their frustrations, as multiple skirmishes broke out in the Minnesota zone.
Among the battles, Wisconsin’s Ben Grotting managed to rip off sophomore Patrick White’s helmet and get some good shots in before being given a five-minute major for fighting and a game disqualification, meaning he’ll miss the Badgers’ next game at North Dakota.
While the officials were sorting out that battle, UW’s Sean Dolan paraded Cade Fairchild in a headlock in front of the Wisconsin student section, giving Badger fans something to cheer about after a quiet evening. In retrospect, those were the two biggest battles Wisconsin won all night.
“We’ll take the win, they can win the fight,” Lucia said with a smile.
All in all, 61 minutes of roughing penalties were handed out for the game, 43 coming in the third period alone.
“That’s why we play sports, for the rivalries and things like this,” Stoa said. “You don’t want it to get chippy like that, but we don’t like them and they don’t like us. We definitely won’t forget about it.”
The fighting overshadowed a solid night for Stoa, who has had a long road back after suffering a season-ending knee injury in Minnesota’s third game last season. Through four conference games, Stoa has four goals and two assists, which is a big reason Minnesota is 3-0-1 to start this season this year instead of 0-4-0 last season.
“This is absolutely what we wanted playing two big rivals (St. Cloud State and Wisconsin) like this,” Stoa said. “That’s what you want to do, you want to try and put teams behind you for the year. Now, we’re six points ahead of the Badgers.”