MADISON, Wis. — Hockey, as with any sport, can have a sense of irony.
Earlier this season, Wisconsin was 7-1 going into a Nov. 3-4 series at Minnesota. The Badgers were swept by the Gophers, and never seemed to get back on track after that point.
That is, perhaps, until now.
Wisconsin’s 4-2 victory over Minnesota on Friday gave UW its first conference win since December 8 and its first win at the Kohl Center since a 2-1 defeat of Colorado College on November 17.
“I thought we played a strong game. We had intensity — the guys were anxious to play,” coach Jeff Sauer said.
Wisconsin got off to a fast start as Kent Davyduke stole the puck, skated past the goal and flicked a pass to Erik Jensen skating in. Jensen shot a wrister past Minnesota goaltender Adam Hauser’s left side. The goal came only 1:03 into the game, putting Wisconsin up 1-0.
A few minutes later Minnesota knotted the game at one. Immediately following a penalty kill by Wisconsin, the Gophers struck. Before the announcer could finish saying “penalty over,” Matt Koalska worked his way in front of Badger goalkeeper Graham Melanson, then sent the puck high over Melanson’s shoulder and into the goal.
A vocal Kohl Center crowd saw a fast-paced first period that was played mostly in front of the two goals. The offenses produced only two goals on 26 shots, however, as both goaltenders came up with big saves.
The second period saw the momentum shift decidedly in favor of the Badgers. Once again UW scored an early goal as Matt Murray shot one past Hauser 1:36 into the period.
Wisconsin followed up Murray’s goal with another to make the score 3-1 at 6:58. This time around it was Matt Hussey doing the honors. Taking the puck in the neutral zone, the junior raced up the ice and took a shot moments after crossing the blue line. Hauser was unable to get in front of it, and the puck found itself in the net.
Whistles slowed down play for the remainder of the period. The teams combined for 12 penalties, but neither Wisconsin nor Minnesota could take advantage of power-play opportunities.
“We did a good job killing penalties,” Sauer said. “We worked on it this week, I am pleased with a lot of aspects. We played a good game and won.” Minnesota went 0-for-5 on the power play, UW 0-for-6.
In the third period Minnesota showed that it would not go down without a fight as Erik Wendell scooped up a loose puck behind the net and skated around front, where Melanson had the corner blocked off. Wendell then astutely flicked the puck over to Jeff Taffe, positioned on the other side of the goal. The job was easy for Taffe, who simply knocked the puck into the net, bringing the Gophers within one goal at 3-2 with 17 minutes remaining in the game.
On this night however, the Badgers were not going to let a two-goal lead slip away, as they had in their last outing against Denver.
At the 5:24 mark UW had itself a 3-on-2 breakaway that brought the Wisconsin lead back to two goals. After a Minnesota missed shot, Dany Heatley brought the puck up the left side, then passed over to Murray, who was away from Hauser’s line of sight. Murray wasted no time sending the puck home, making the Badger lead 4-2.
“It was kind of a broken play.” Murray said. “It gave us a 3-on-2 and an opportunity to score.”
From that point on Minnesota had no real chance as the UW defense stiffened, and with 2:56 Minnesota’s Matt DeMarchi was assessed four minutes in penalties for holding and cross-checking. That put Wisconsin on the power play for the remainder of regulation and helped the Badgers skate off with a solid win, the significance of which was not lost on the UW coaching staff.
“This was a big win; if we win tomorrow night we are only one point behind Minnesota [in the WCHA standings],” Sauer said.