The contest was billed as the WCHA Third-Place Game, but in reality, Saturday afternoon’s matchup between No. 1 Minnesota and No. 3 Wisconsin could have been better described as the NCAA Tournament Top Seed Game.
Still, the feel and rhythm of the game did not exactly underscore that importance, as Wisconsin’s determination level fueled a 4-0 victory over Minnesota at the Xcel Energy Center Saturday afternoon.
“Our team responded very well today,” said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves. “We played the game that we needed to play. Redemption is a great motivator. Nobody was looking at this as just a third-place game. There was a lot of pride on the line.”
The Badgers (26-10-3) were led by Ross Carlson, who finished the afternoon with a goal and an assist, and Brian Elliott, who made 26 saves en route to his sixth shutout of the season, extending his school record for shutouts in a season and tying the Wisconsin record for shutouts in a career with nine.
Throughout the game, the Badgers successfully dictated play, while Minnesota (27-8-5) seemed to be suffering from an emotional hangover as a result of its heart-wrenching overtime loss to St. Cloud State on Friday night.
“As a player, you’re supposed to be able to ‘bring it’ in all situations,” said Minnesota senior captain Gino Guyer. “Especially against a rival like Wisconsin. It just wasn’t there for whatever reason. We were just emotionally dead today.”
“The reality of today’s game was what happened last night,” said Minnesota coach Don Lucia. “You play a game like that one, such an emotional up-and-down game, and you throw in how hard our kids worked to get back into that game just to lose like that in overtime, it’s human nature.
“It’s more mental than physical — it’s hard to summon that mental energy to play so soon.”
Three and a half minutes in, Wisconsin got on the board first after some uninspired and lackadaisical play by the Minnesota defense. Jake Dowell found Andrew Joudrey in the open, and Joudrey took off on a breakaway, beating Kellen Briggs with a backhand through the five-hole for the first marker of the game. The goal made for the 11th time this season Wisconsin has scored in the first four minutes of the game.
Wisconsin went on to score the only goal of the second period as well, this time directly off a Minnesota error. After a Gopher turnover in the defensive zone, Wisconsin junior Ross Carlson picked up the puck and made a no-look, backhanded drop pass for freshman Jack Skille, who picked it up and skated in on net, slipping it past Briggs for his 12th goal of the season halfway through the second.
The gap widened three minutes into the final period as Carlson notched his second point of the afternoon. A blue-line blast by sophomore defenseman Kyle Klubertanz was saved by Briggs, but the rebound bounced directly to Carlson, who was waiting on the doorstep and rifled the bounce directly into an open net.
Elliott was not often called upon to make dramatic saves, but his stop midway through the third period brought Badger fans to their feet. Minnesota gained the attacking zone with a three-on-two, but despite slick passing by the Gopher attack, the resulting shot was saved by Elliott, who slid across the mouth of the net and swiped the puck out of the air for a highlight-reel save.
Robbie Earl concluded the scoring with a nifty goal eight minutes later. On the breakaway, Earl wristed a shot that Briggs got a piece of, but the rebound fell behind the Gopher netminder, and Earl swung his stick out while his momentum carried him past the net and tapped his own rebound in.
Perhaps the only sour note for Wisconsin on the afternoon was the inability of Joe Pavelski to extend his career-best point-scoring streak, which ended after 12 games.
One night after displaying exceptional prowess on the man-advantage, Minnesota failed to score on the power play despite six opportunities.
“I thought we did some intelligent things on the penalty-kill,” said Eaves. “Our guys were changing things on the fly, and we were constantly adjusting and talking about it during the course of the game.”
With the win, Wisconsin essentially locks up the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament and virtually guarantees that the team will not have to leave the Badger State for the remainder of the postseason. As the top seed in the tournament, the Badgers will likely be the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional at Green Bay, Wis., and will almost certainly face either Bemidji State or Bentley in the opening round depending on the outcome of the Atlantic Hockey championship.
Wisconsin is then the host institution for the 2006 Frozen Four in Milwaukee.
“The number-one team isn’t the top team going into the tournament, it’s the one after the tournament is over,” said Eaves. “But there’s no question that we feel comfortable going to Green Bay. A lot of our kids have experience there, and being around our fans obviously isn’t a downside.”
Wisconsin also improved its season record against No. 1-ranked teams to 3-0-1. The Badgers previously scored victories against Colorado College and Michigan while those teams held the top spot in the USCHO.com/CSTV poll.
Meanwhile, Minnesota suffered back-to-back losses for only the second time this season — the last such streak coming in early December in a weekend series against the Badgers. The Gophers’ likely destination for the NCAAs is Grand Forks, N.D., as the top seed in the West Regional, which could force Minnesota into a game against host North Dakota if both teams were to win their first-round matchups.
“I don’t think it matters one bit where we go,” said Lucia. “We played very well in Grand Forks, and it’s a facility that we’re comfortable with, but I’m a firm believer that at the end of the year, it doesn’t matter where you play, the best team that night will win.”