MINNEAPOLIS — On paper, there are few differences that separate No.1 Wisconsin and No.2 Minnesota. Both squads rank one/two in WCHA scoring offense, defense, on the power play, on the penalty kill and have a ton of game-changing players in front of a solid goaltender.
With the two teams entering this weekend’s series deadlocked at 40 points a piece, the opening game of the series would go a long way in determining the 2008-09 WCHA regular season champion.
After 60 minutes, advantage Minnesota.
The Gophers took advantage of a lack of Wisconsin aggression and several Badgers’ miscues in the opening minutes on their way to scoring a career-high four goals against UW goalie Jesse Vetter, upending the top-ranked Badgers, 4-2, in front of a crowd of 2,562 at Ridder Arena.
“It’s a big win for us to finally get that monkey off our back, over the past couple years of them having our number,” said Minnesota center Jocelyne Lamoureux, referring to the Gophers’ first home win over Wisconsin since January 2005. “We played probably our best game of the year.”
The reason for that was simple: Minnesota (24-3-2, 19-2-2 WCHA) came out and controlled the tempo, putting Wisconsin (24-2-3, 18-2-3 WCHA) squarely on its heels by pressing the Badgers inside their own defensive zone and taking away UW’s time and space offensively.
The result was the Badgers’ defense, a unit that was allowing just 20 shots a game and 1.2 goals per outing, giving up 37 shots and a season-high tying four tallies.
“Definitely you could see in the first period the nerves get the best of us,” said Vetter. “Minnesota came out strong, had a great period and we have to respond a little better to them coming out that way.”
The Gophers were rewarded for pressuring the Wisconsin defense and Vetter. Although leading the nation in goals-against average (1.15) and save percentage (.944), Vetter had little chance to stop a Jocelyne Lamoureux deflected shot that gave the Gophers the first strike at 1:27.
“Because of the magnitude of the game and playing in their environment, they are going to be a little more pumped than our players,” UW coach Mark Johnson said. “I was hoping to get through six or eight minutes before getting scored on. Unfortunately it only lasted a minute, 27. That creates more energy for them and we were on our heels a lot.”
Minnesota doubled its lead early in the second when a gamble by Vetter backfired. A loose puck near center ice turned into a two-on-none rush for the Gophers. Off of Jocelyne Lamoureux’s pass to teammate Emily West, Vetter tried a poke check to get the puck out of harm’s way.
In actuality, Vetter poked the puck right to West, and it bounced off her and into the back of net, netting her her 14th goal of the season in the easiest of fashions.
Things continued to go south for Wisconsin. A turnover by defenseman Anne Dronen right in front of her own net was caused when she broke her stick on an attempted pass, allowing Lamoureux to notch her second goal of the game, chipping the turned-over puck over Vetter’s glove for a 3-0 lead at 11:29 in the second.
“Those are definitely frustrating,” Vetter said of the second and third goals. “That’s going to happen in the game and you have to respond to it. I thought we did, getting a goal in the second and having some good chances in the third.”
Wisconsin’s high-powered offense, which was outscoring opponents four-to-one, finally got a puck past Gophers’ goalie Alyssa Grogan at 14:14 in the second, when Brooke Ammerman, camped just outside of the crease, scored on a bang-bang play off a pass from forward Jasmine Giles to cut the lead to 3-1 heading into the third.
After that, however, Minnesota wouldn’t allow Wisconsin to shave any more off the lead. Gophers’ defenseman and co-captain Melanie Gagnon rifled a shot from between the circles for a power-play goal at 4:42 to push the lead back to three.
It turned out to be a beneficial tally, as UW’s Meghan Duggan scored on a breakaway less than 90 seconds later. After that, Grogan shut the door, stopping 17 shots for her 11th victory of the season.
“It was just the goalie, but all six players in our defensive zone that really contained them,” Minnesota coach Brad Frost said. “We’ve learned that once we get the lead, we need to continue to extend the lead. Going up 4-1 was huge. It allowed us to maintain that two-goal lead.”
With the winner of the series the odds-on favorite to win the WCHA regular season championship and controlling the tiebreaker between the two squads, both sides know valuable tomorrow’s contest is.
“There’s still a lot at stake,” Frost said. “The first one was a big one, no doubt. We wanted to earn it and get it and we did. We’ve got to come out the next night and prove ourselves again.”