MINNEAPOLIS — Friday’s crowd at Minnesota’s Mariucci Arena may not have gone home happy, but what the 10,000-plus saw was worth the price of admission.
No. 1 Wisconsin showed its stuff for most of the game in building a three-goal lead, then watched the fourth-ranked Gophers battle back in the waning minutes before holding on for a 4-3 win.
Brian Elliott and the Badgers (12-1-2, 9-0-2 WCHA) gave up three goals for the first time this season, but the sophomore netminder was strong at key moments, especially during a minute of sustained Gopher six-on-four at the end. Elliott finished with 35 saves.
“The game was 4-1, they fought their way back, and then you see what a young man does under pressure,” said UW head coach Mike Eaves of his netminder, the three-time WCHA Player of the Week this season.
The win, the Badgers’ first at Minnesota (7-4-4, 6-3-2 WCHA) in over five years, also came courtesy of two goals from sophomore Joe Pavelski, who despite his limited time with the Badgers was well aware of UW’s record at Mariucci.
“The seniors hadn’t won, the juniors hadn’t won — nobody in that [locker] room had won [here],” said Pavelski.
The center from Plover, Wis., was a big part of why that streak ended, hooking up with Robbie Earl for his team-leading 10th goal of the season and second of the night at 3:13 of the third period. On a two-on-one, Pavelski took a pass across the slot from Earl and neatly flipped the puck high past Minnesota goalie Kellen Briggs (21 saves) for a 4-1 lead. That goal turned out to be the game winner.
The Earl-Pavelski combination accounted for three of the Badgers’ four goals Friday, as Wisconsin extended its overall unbeaten string to 13 games.
“It’s been like that [with Pavelski] since my sophomore year,” said Earl. “We started off slow this year, but we’ve started to get back in rhythm.”
For Minnesota, the game was a story of missed chances — and missed assignments. Down by three midway through the third, goals by P.J. Atherton and Justin Bostrom made for a thrilling finish, but weren’t enough to salvage the outcome for the hosts.
“We got invigorated by the second goal,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia, referring to Atherton’s tally at 10:36 of the third, “but we didn’t do enough the first 50 minutes to give ourselves a chance to win.
“I was disappointed in how we played defensively,” added Lucia, who wryly acknowledged “a couple of times” that Minnesota’s defenders let Badger attackers by on scoring chances.
One of those times came midway through the second period, when Pavelski put Wisconsin on top with a singlehanded effort that sparked the Badgers.
With the teams tied at 1, and Wisconsin yet to record a shot on goal in eight-plus minutes of the middle frame, Pavelski skated into the offensive zone on the right side, deked Minnesota defenseman Chris Harrington, and shifted smoothly to his backhand for an easy putaway and a 2-1 lead.
Just over a minute later, Nick Licari hit a wide-open Ross Carlson in the high slot for a point-blank chance that he stuffed past Briggs at 10:14 to give the Badgers a two-goal edge and all the momentum.
Elliott was at his best again toward the end of the second, stonewalling Ryan Stoa on a redirection from the edge of the crease, and finishing up by closing the five-hole on Blake Wheeler with a minute left to preserve the 3-1 lead.
After Pavelski’s goal early in the third period, Atherton got one back for Minnesota at 10:36 off a slapshot from the right point through a heap of traffic. Bostrom then brought Minnesota within a goal at the 16:00 mark by blasting a loose puck past Elliott after a wraparound attempt by Evan Kaufmann.
Bostrom’s goal brought the crowd to life again, and with Minnesota swarming the zone in the final minutes of regulation, Jake Dowell crosschecked Phil Kessel to put the Gophers on one last power play with 1:10 left.
Minnesota pulled Briggs for a six-on-four moments later, but couldn’t get through despite several shots in the closing seconds, including one by Ben Gordon that Elliott gloved while nearly prone.
“The best team won tonight,” said Lucia. “They played harder and smarter.”
The game started well for the Badgers, who gave Minnesota a nasty shock in the opening seconds. Off a turnover in the neutral zone, Adam Burish and Earl went in on a two-on-one, and Earl escaped his defender in time to flip Burish’s pass home at :27.
Wisconsin held that lead until, with 1:45 left in the period, UW’s Ryan MacMurchy was tagged with a major for hitting from behind, putting the Gophers on a five-minute power play. Ryan Potulny made it count, making a move around a Badger defender in the slot before firing a low wrister past Elliott at 19:38 to tie the game at 1 heading to the locker rooms.
That was just a prelude to the real action, including the Badgers’ game-changing second period and the Gophers’ nearly-spectacular comeback.
In his collegiate debut against his hometown team, Madison native Kessel didn’t factor much, though the crowd rose to attention almost whenever he got the puck. The Gophers’ team leader in assists and points was held off the scoreboard.
Wisconsin and Minnesota match up again Saturday night at 7 p.m. at Mariucci Arena for the series finale.