ST. PAUL, Minn. — After a stretch of inconsistent play to close out the regular season, Minnesota might be warming up again at just the right time.
Playing before a record crowd in Friday’s late semifinal at the Xcel Energy Center, sophomore center Blake Wheeler notched a hat trick, including the game winner, as the Golden Gophers topped Wisconsin 4-2.
“We’ve been a little up-and-down the last half of this year, but we’ve put together back-to-back solid games,” said Minnesota captain Mike Vannelli, who scored the only non-Wheeler goal of the game for the Gophers.
The win moved Minnesota into the WCHA championship game, where the Gophers will face North Dakota in a matchup pitting the regular-season champion against the league’s — and perhaps the country’s — hottest team.
“I know we don’t have a chance [against UND],” quipped Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. “That’s kind of the consensus.”
Wheeler’s three goals, which doubled his production since the start of calendar year 2007, secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for Minnesota (29-9-3) regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s championship game.
At the same time, it ended the chance for Wisconsin (18-18-4) to defend its 2006 national title. The Badgers, who finished the regular season tied for sixth in the league standings, needed to win the Broadmoor Trophy to earn the WCHA’s NCAA tournament autobid.
“It’s disappointing,” said UW head coach Mike Eaves, who held out hope that the various components of the PairWise Rankings might still assemble themselves into at an-large bid for the Badgers. “There were some teary eyes in the locker room after the game.”
With the score tied at 2 and the second period ticking to a close, Wheeler scored the game’s most important goal, a power-play shocker that restored Minnesota’s lead and secured the momentum for the Gophers heading into the third.
At 19:51, Wisconsin’s Jake Dowell was sent off for hooking, and five seconds later Wheeler did the honors by redirecting Alex Goligoski’s shot underneath UW netminder Brian Elliott (21 saves) to give the Gophers a 3-2 lead.
“Alex made a great play, putting it on my stick,” said a modest Wheeler, who raised his season total in goals to 17 with Friday’s hat trick.
“It’s always tough to give up goals in the last minute of a period,” acknowledged UW’s Andrew Joudrey.
For much of the third period, as for most of the game, Minnesota got the better of the quality scoring chances, but Wisconsin outshot the Gophers overall.
As the end of regulation drew near, though, the Gophers began atypically — but effectively — icing the puck, or at least clearing rather than attacking to preserve the one-goal lead.
Wisconsin netminder Elliott went off for the six-on-five at 19:06, but Wheeler intercepted a Wisconsin pass, skated to center ice and skimmed the puck into the empty net to complete his hat trick with four seconds left.
A theme of relaxation pervaded the Gopher roster afterward, contrary to the nerves a young Minnesota squad showed in the first round of the WCHA playoffs against Alaska-Anchorage.
“I think that’s when we play our best hockey,” said Minnesota goaltender Kellen Briggs, who stopped 29 of 31 Wisconsin shots. “We just want to go out and have fun.”
The game was significant for Briggs in another way, as he tied former Gopher Adam Hauser’s WCHA record for career wins with 83.
Early on, Minnesota controlled most of the play, but Elliott was strong for Wisconsin and the Badgers notched a late goal to erase a Gopher lead heading to the locker rooms after 20 minutes.
Wheeler opened the scoring for Minnesota 5:52 into the first, tapping home a puck at a hard angle from the left side of the goalmouth. The sophomore center’s 15th goal of the year made it 1-0.
Late in the frame, the Gophers were handed a prime opportunity when penalties against Matt Olinger and Jeff Likens gave them nearly a minute of five-on-three, but Wisconsin cleared the puck multiple times during the two-man advantage, then killed the remaining five-on-four power play with equal aplomb.
And as so often seems to happen, Wisconsin followed up on its crucial defense with successful offense — though old-fashioned puck luck was the biggest part of it.
Davis Drewiske chased down a loose puck near the left boards and fired blindly toward the Minnesota net. The shot was going 10 feet wide until it hit the skate of UM defenseman Erik Johnson and deflected just inside the right post at 19:16 to knot the score.
Wisconsin took its first lead at 1:37 of the second. Leading a two-on-one rush up the left side, Jake Dowell kept the puck and fired a shot just inside the left post to make it 2-1.
But 11 minutes into the second, Minnesota tied the score with a little luck of its own. Vannelli unleashed a point shot toward a Ryan Flynn screen, and the puck banged around before hitting UW center Aaron Bendickson and caroming back into the net. Vannelli was credited with the goal, his 10th.