The Minnesota Golden Gophers came into this weekend's series against the Wisconsin Badgers riding high. The Gophers were college hockey's newly christened number one team, rising all the way from the 19th position in the polls prior to the season. Minnesota had just come off an emotional sweep of their arch-rivals the North Dakota Fighting Sioux and were going to be thrown right back into the fire, traveling to another rival's rink to face the enigmatic Wisconsin Badgers. The weekend series saw sloppy play from the Gophers on Friday before returning to their dominating selves Saturday night.
Friday 11/11/11: 3-1 Gopher Loss
After the game, coach Don Lucia intimated that perhaps the Gophers had spent a lot of emotion in their series with North Dakota and didn't have anything left in the tank for the opening game against Wisconsin. Whatever the case may have been, Minnesota did not play with the fire and urgency that fans have come to expect from this year's team. Under head coach Mike Eaves, Wisconsin has been known for their defense-first, slow-tempo style of play. So often in games when two teams with drastically different styles of play face each other, it's the team that is able to make their opponent play their game that ends up winning. The Badgers were able to assert their style of play throughout the game, which is a big part of the reason why they came away with a 3-1 victory Friday night.
Although Minnesota controlled the puck for much of the first period (and much of the game), the Gophers played right into Wisconsin's hand by not forcing the play into the center of the ice. Throughout the game the Gophers seemed content to take shot attempts from the edges of the offensive zone, and the Wisconsin defense which is known for clogging up the middle seemed willing to let Minnesota take chances from the outside. Neither team scored a goal in the first period, and neither team had many quality scoring chances. The shots on goal through the opening twenty minutes were five per side.
The second period saw three goals, all by the home Badgers. First, Mark Zengerle scored on a two-on-one backdoor pass from Tyler Barnes at 5:28 of the period. Then, just 45 seconds later at 6:13 of the period, the Badgers struck again. Keegan Meuer beat Gopher goalie Kent Patterson on a long shot from the right wing that hit a Minnesota stick before deflecting under the crossbar. The goal doubled the Badger lead, and Wisconsin would add one more on a Michael Mersch breakaway off of a nice feed from the first-team All-American defenseman Justin Schultz.
A three goal lead is tough to come back from, especially against the fundamentally-sound and defensive-minded Wisconsin Badgers. The lead proved too much for Minnesota, as a late Jake Hansen power play goal was all the Gophers could muster against Wisconsin goalie Joel Rumpel, who improved to 4-1-1 overall and appears to have taken over the goaltending duties for the Badgers. The 3-1 loss was Minnesota's first WCHA defeat of the season, but the Gophers still sat atop the WCHA table with a 6-1-0 record and 12 total points. Minnesota would look to bounce back on Saturday night and try to crack the stifling Badger defense.
Saturday 11/12/11: 4-1 Gopher Victory
As sloppy and lackadaisical as the Gophers looked Friday night, the team looked determined and hungry on Saturday. Minnesota (10-2-0 Overall, 7-1-0 WCHA) struck first in Saturday night's contest as Seth Helgeson scored his first of the season on a fluttering wrist shot from the high slot. Tyler Barnes would tie the game at one on a backdoor pass from defenseman John Ramage that beat Kent Patterson. The goal at 16:24 was the last of the period. The shots in the first favored Minnesota 12-4, and the play favored the Gophers by about that margin. The Gophers were all over Wisconsin (5-6-1 Overall, 4-5-1 WCHA) throughout the period, but the tally that matters was tied as the teams completed twenty minutes of play.
The game would remain knotted at one goal each throughout the second period as well. The most exciting event in the middle frame was a controversial five-minute Contact to the Head penalty on Wisconsin's Michael Mersch. On a play that likely would have been called a two-minute elbowing call in years past, Mersch hit Minnesota's Kyle Rau in the head/neck area. The referees conferred before kicking Mersch out of the game and awarding the Gophers a five-minute power play. We've seen this call before - the Gophers' Seth Ambroz was given five and a game for Contact to the Head in the Friday North Dakota game. It would appear with the rash of concussion injuries becoming more frequent at all levels of hockey that the NCAA has decided to crack down on this sort of play. This is fine by me so long as the referees call this penalty consistently throughout the season. The Gophers did very little with their power play, and two of the five minutes would carry over into the third period. Shots on goal after forty minutes of play favored Minnesota at 20-9.
The Gophers did not score on their two minute power play to open the third period, and although Minnesota looked like the better team throughout the game it appeared that Wisconsin's defense might pull out a point or two against a dominating Gopher team. Minnesota's offense, dormant most of the weekend, finally woke up in the final fifteen minutes of the game. First, Gopher captain Taylor Matson scored as his shot snuck through Joel Rumpel's five-hole at 6:14. The goal gave Minnesota a slim 2-1 lead, but the Gophers would add to it. Nick Bjugstad scored his ninth goal of the season on a turnover that gave him a partial breakaway at 12:16. Bjugstad, often known for his nifty stickhandling and physical presence, unloaded with a slapshot from right between the circles that picked the upper corner. Minnesota would tack on another tally as Wisconsin-native Nate Condon split the Badger defense and beat Rumpel at 15:26. The Gophers barely lost control of the puck after that, putting on a clinic of puck control as the clock wound down. The shots on goal ended at 33-14 in favor of Minnesota, and the win gave the Gophers 14 points in the WCHA, three better than second-place Minnesota-Duluth and Nebraska-Omaha.
Follow this link to see the BTN's video highlights of Saturday's game:
Next Week: Gophers vs. St. Cloud State
Next week, the Gophers play a home-and-home series against St. Cloud State. The Huskies are coming off a road split versus Minnesota State. They're still struggling to deal with the loss of senior leader Drew LeBlanc, who is out for at least three months with a broken leg. Minnesota leads the all time series 48-26-12, including an 8-3-1 mark in their last 12 games.