MADISON, Wisc. — Despite a dominating first period and a solid second, No. 2 Wisconsin watched the game — and their WCHA lead — escape them Saturday night.
With the game knotted 1-1 midway through the final frame, Gopher sophomore Ben Gordon and freshman Phil Kessel each scored less than two minutes apart to snag a 3-1 victory in front of 15,237 at the Kohl Center.
“To be honest I didn’t think we would be able to come here and win a couple games,” Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said. “I give our kids a lot of credit.”
“Anytime you come down here and beat the Badgers it’s a great feeling,” the Madison-native Kessel said.
He is now two-for-two in that department.
“Right now, for us, the main thing is just to maintain and kind of regroup here in the middle of the storm and make sure that we’re not losing confidence in ourself,” UW head coach Mike Eaves said.
The Badgers had talked about carrying their Friday-night, third-period momentum into Saturday’s game, and they couldn’t have come out any hotter.
But they only built up a 1-0 lead and saw their energy evaporate in the third period as they gave up three unanswered goals over the final 40 minutes.
“It just may have been the wearing down emotionally of dealing with not having Brian in the lineup and the big crowd at home,” Eaves said.
Gone with UW’s fourth-straight home loss is what was once an eight-point lead in the league and the race for the MacNaughton Cup is now wide open.
“It’s just frustrating to have an eight-point cushion and now it’s a race for the WCHA first place,” assistant captain Tom Gilbert said. “It’s frustrating that you do a lot of good things and you don’t do a lot of good things. Unfortunately for us, we’re on a little slide right now.”
It was all Badgers early on Saturday.
UW benefited from an early power play. After pummeling Kellen Briggs with four early shots, Gilbert finally put one home. Robbie Earl passed to the puck to him from the left circle to right circle and the blue-liner deposited the puck top-shelf in the near corner.
The Gophers had just one shot to the Badgers 10 through the first 10 minutes of the game and were outshot 14-3 in the opening frame, but UW carried just a 1-0 lead into the break.
“After the first, we didn’t feel we played very well, but all things considered, only down one is looking pretty good,” Lucia said.
While he allowed the one goal in the first, Kellen Briggs held tight and gave his team a chance. He finished the game with 31 saves in the win.
“Kellen was outstanding and helped us get the two points,” Lucia said.
All the Badgers hard work in the first went for naught when Ryan Potulny got the equalizer just minutes into the second.
Potulny — who had a career-high four assists in Minnesota’s victory Friday night — evened things up in the second period with his 20th goal of the season and 50th of his career. The junior center was stopped by Shane Connelly initially but stuffed home his own rebound to make it 1-1 four minutes into the period.
It was a much more even 20 minutes in the second with UW winning the shot battle 7-6, and despite another solid effort from Wisconsin, it was the Gophers who got on the scoreboard.
The same energy just was not there for Wisconsin in the third. Despite outshooting Minnesota 11-9, the Gophers sealed the deal with back-to-back goals with less than 10 minutes left.
Gordon snuck behind the Wisconsin defense and Danny Irmen found him with a great pass through the legs of Gilbert. The assistant captain tried to catch him from behind, but Gordon sent a well-placed shot from the left circle into the lower far corner of the net passed the outstretched leg of Connelly.
“It was a great pass and it got through and Ben made a nice shot,” Lucia said. “I kind of felt the momentum change when we tied it 1-1. Then I thought we got better as the game went on.”
Just two minutes later, Kessel skated in the left-hand side and fired a shot on Connelly that the young netminder would probably like to have back. The puck found its way through the five-hole to put the nail in the coffin.
The Madison native, who had taken heat all weekend from a raucous Kohl Center crowd, celebrated by cupping his glove to his ear as if to ask “What do you have to say about that?”
“You’d like not for that,” Lucia said of Kessel’s celebration. “Under the circumstances and how much grief he took all weekend, I can understand it.”
“It just popped into my head,” Kessel said of his celebration. “I was excited.”
While it was Kessel with the dagger at the end, the veterans once again carried the team as Potulny and Irmen each finished the weekend with five points.
“He played a great game,” Kessel said of Irmen, who finished with two assists. “He’s an unbelievable talent out there.”
Minnesota’s hot streak continues as the Gophers have now lost just once since being swept at home by the same Badgers the first weekend in December. They will get a break next weekend.
For the Badgers, while their eight-point cushion has vanished into thin air, they are not ready to hit the panic button yet.
“We’ve dug ourselves a little bit of a hole, but you look at the bright side, it’s tied [at the top of the league],” Earl said. “It’s still in our hands and it’s up to us what we want to do with it.”
They will look to get back on track on the road, where their record is still unblemished, at Minnesota-Duluth next weekend.