MINNEAPOLIS — It’s not often a five minute major is the momentum boost for the shorthanded team.
Then again, it’s not often that good things happen for the Wisconsin Badgers in Mariucci Arena, a venue where Wisconsin is a horrid 5-22-2 since it opened in 1993 and hasnt won since their national championship season three years ago.
Oddly enough, thanks to a semi-heroic effort from senior goalie Shane Connelly, good things finally happened to the Badgers in their personal house of horrors.
No. 16 Wisconsin got goals from three Minnesota natives, two of which came during the five-minute major, and a career-high tying 43 saves from Connelly to give UW a rare but important 3-2 victory over ninth ranked Minnesota Friday night.
With the Badgers (15-11-3, 12-7-2 WCHA) simply trying to survive a first period assault by the Gophers, Wisconsin suffered a seemingly crippling blow when forward John Mitchell was given a five minute major and a game misconduct for checking UM’s Cade Fairchild from behind.
Already being outshot 17-3, Wisconsin lost its leading goal scorer and gave its frazzled defense the chore of killing off a five minute power play against the conference’s best power play team that was converting at 21.2 percent.
But with the Badgers possessing the nation’s best penalty kill (90.4 percent) and UW irate at the call, Wisconsin found its spark.
“The five minute major, at that point we could have felt sorry for ourselves and just quit there, but we sucked it up from there,” Connelly said.
Added defenseman Jamie McBain: “We knew that we weren’t playing our best hockey and our penalty kill had to be huge for us to get us back in the game. We all mustered ourselves up to do anything we had to in order to kill it off.”
Less than 90 seconds into that penalty, Wisconsin was rewarded with a face-off in Minnesota’s zone, giving them the opening to capitalize.
Junior co-captain Blake Geoffrion won the draw, sliding the puck back to McBain who flicked a wrister over Gopher goalie Alex Kangas from beyond the right circle to give Wisconsin a crucial shorthanded goal.
It turned out to be a lead Wisconsin would never relinquish, thanks in big part to Connelly, who stopped 19 shots in the first period to keep Minnesota (12-8-5, 9-7-3 WCHA) at bay.
“It’s about surviving at that point and getting to the end of the period,” UW coach Mike Eaves said. “They came out and just blasted everything at us. As much as you think you are ready to play in this building, you were caught watching. But, we survived because of Shane.”
As the five minute power play drew on, the momentum only increased for the Badgers. Minnesota forward Mike Hoeffel was whistled for interference in the waning seconds of the first period, eliminating more time for the Gophers to strike.
With 4-on-4 hockey at the beginning of the second, freshman center Derek Stepan banged in a rebound at 43 seconds to double the lead, giving UW an even bigger bounce in its step.
“That’s how quickly the game can change,” McBain said. “One goal or one bounce like that took momentum out of their sails and enabled us to go into the second feeling good, even after we’ve been out played. To have one at the end of the first and to add that one early in the second was huge momentum for us.”
Minnesota’s 19 first period shots were its highest opening period total of the season and show a sign of fire after being swept by Minnesota State the week prior.
But combine Wisconsin’s two goals during the five minute major and UW’s Andy Bohmbach punching in a loose rebound at 18:39 in the second to extend the lead to 3-0, Minnesota’s frustrations began boiling over, especially when two of its elite playmakers were stymied by the glove work of Connelly minutes earlier.
At 13:12 of the second, center Jordan Schroeder led a 2-on-1, which came about when UW freshman defenseman Ryan Little fell in the left circle. Schroeder drove the net and gave right winger Jay Barriball a perfect backhanded feed at the right post, but watched in shock as Connelly somehow made a glove save.
“The way Connelly played throughout was the big turning point,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia. “Early on, I thought, we had a chance to go up a couple goals and we didn’t. Talk about a turning point.”
After stopping a combined 38 shots last weekend, Connelly earned his first career victory at Mariucci, but certainly had to work for it. The Gophers got on the board at 3:57 of the third when a shot from the right point was deflected past Connelly by left winger Mike Hoeffel.
Minnesota made things interesting at 16:28 when center Mike Carman corralled a rebound to beat Connelly with a wrister. From there, Connelly shut the door, letting out an emphatic scream and fist pump when the horn finally sounded.
“I knew they weren’t going to beat me three times to tie the game,” Connelly said. “The defense did an incredible job. It was a big team effort.”