MADISON, Wis. — If the first period of Friday night’s game with Minnesota was a preview of Wisconsin’s tough home stretch, the outlook was not good for the Badgers.
With the previous weekend off, the Badgers struggled to muster any offense in the first period. But the defense hung tough and did exactly what it needed to do — keep the Gophers off of the scoreboard.
“It was a tempo issue. We were just rusty. But we responded very well,” UW head coach Mike Eaves said.
The Badgers shook the cobwebs out in the first intermission and used the first ten minutes of the second period to prove it, scoring twice on their way to a 3-1 victory in front of a sold-out crowd of 15,237 at the Kohl Center.
The win set the stage for the final weeks of league play, in which the Badgers take on all of the teams in the top half of the league standings.
“It was important for us to weather the storm. We hadn’t played for two weeks and we had a good team coming in,” UW forward Joe Pavelski said. “We got through the first period and it seemed like the rust was off in the second period.”
The second has been the Badgers’ period this year. Coming into this weekend, they had scored 40 of their 90 goals this season in the middle period. Friday night was no different, as their play in the first half of the frame dictated the outcome.
“I thought we played well. We had about a ten-minute lapse in the second period and that’s what hurt us,” Minnesota forward Ryan Potulny said. “It’s time where we have to get some wins. We can’t sit here and say we played well and be happy with it.”
After landing just six shots on goal, and nine attempts total, in the first period, the Badgers outshot the Gophers 5-1 over the first ten minutes in the second, leading to a 2-0 advantage.
Sophomore forward Ross Carlson gave the Badgers the lead two minutes in. Robbie Earl fired a shot from the point high off the glass. Carlson collected the puck to Kellen Briggs’ right side. As the goalie slid to his right, Carlson banked the puck off Briggs’ left leg, through the five-hole and into the net.
The Badgers doubled their lead six minutes later. Pavelski picked the puck up to the right of the net, pulled it out front and snuck it into the far side of the net just six seconds into a UW power play for the eventual game winner.
The Badgers went 2-for-3 with just three shots on goal on the man-advantage in the second period. But it was that special-teams effort that made the difference.
The Gophers got just six shots on Bruckler in the period, with half of them coming in the waning minutes.
The Badgers showed off their defense in the third. They got only three shots on Briggs, but put it all on the line by getting down to block shots, something that has become a staple for them.
Nick Licari kept the momentum in the Badgers’ favor early with a swift move on a breakaway to beat Briggs.
He skated in and Briggs came out to meet him at the top of the crease. Licari faked a shot in the slot, then made a quick turn left which Briggs could not match. Licari dumped the puck in behind him.
For Licari and Carlson, both Duluth, Minn., natives, the win was even sweeter.
“We haven’t had a lot of success against Minnesota since I’ve been here. It was very nice to contribute tonight,” Licari said.
The Gophers finally ended the Badgers’ shutout streak with less than nine minutes to play. After two shutouts against Notre Dame two weekends ago, the stretch lasted more than 180 minutes for the Badger netminders.
“[Bruckler] was very sharp. He bought us time to get our legs going,” Eaves said.
On the power play, Tyler Hirsch found Ryan Potulny with a crossing pass for a one-timer. But the Gophers could not take advantage as the stifling Badger defense kept them from scoring again down the stretch.
Minnesota outshot Wisconsin 24-17 for the game, but Bruckler and the Badgers prevailed.
“We only gave up one five-on-five goal and we only gave up 17 shots. Probably if you would’ve told me that going in I probably would’ve [thought] we won the game tonight,” Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said.
The win kept the Badgers three points behind WCHA-leading Colorado College, and one point ahead of third-place Denver, as all three teams enjoyed victories. The Gophers remain in fourth, five points behind the Pioneers.
While it was just the second win for the Badgers in their last 11 attempts against Minnesota, they were not celebrating. Rather, the mood was one of a job yet to be finished.
Saturday night’s matchup will offer an elevated intensity, as the Badgers will not be happy with a split, and the Gophers will be doing everything they can to escape their current funk.