MADISON, Wis. — The statistic was clear as day on the front page on a University of Minnesota press release.
“Since being swept at the Kohl Center in 1999-2000, Minnesota has lost the opening game of its series at Wisconsin four times. The Gophers have managed three wins and a tie in the Saturday games to avoid the sweep.”
It could easily be considered a beacon of hope, seeing as the Gophers, who managed just 18 shots in last night’s debacle, were already playing without senior scorer Jay Barriball and lost leading scorer Mike Hoeffel before face-off with an unknown illness.
As it turns out, Minnesota only needed senior captain Tony Lucia and junior goalie Alex Kangas to give a dynamite performance to thwart another road series sweep in Wisconsin.
Lucia registered a goal and two assists while Kangas made 45 solid saves to upend No.18 Wisconsin with a 5-2 victory in front of 14,063 fans Saturday at the Kohl Center.
“It always feels good to get a win with a good team effort,” said Kangas. “We scored early, got up early, which helps you relax a little bit. We played a full 60 minutes.”
A night after Wisconsin struck early to seize momentum, Minnesota (3-4-1, 3-4-1 WCHA) returned the favor in the game’s first three shots.
The first shot came off the stick of Lucia, as his snipe from the left circle on the game’s second shift deflected off UW goalie Brett Bennett’s shoulder and into the net at 1:17.
The third shot came at 6:53, as Lucia outplayed UW defenseman Jake Gardiner for a loose puck along the left boards and slid a cross-ice pass to freshman Zach Budish for the easy goal and a 2-0 lead.
“He’s really played well this year,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said of his son. “He’s elevated his game with the ice time he’s been given and he’s had to earn everything since he’s been here. Offensively, he’s obviously chipping in a whole lot more and we need that with this team.”
Although Wisconsin (4-3-1, 2-3-1 WCHA) had strictly split time in goal between Bennett and junior Scott Gudmandson through the season’s first four weeks, UW coach Mike Eaves gave Bennett the start one night after making 16 timely saves and felt he was riding an “aura of confidence.”
The decision backfired, as the junior managed to stop only 23 of the 27 shots he faced.
“That’s easy to say now because it’s 20-20,” said Eaves. “It was a gut feeling and I guess my gut feeling was probably (the) bad sandwich I had last night.
“Tonight it didn’t work out the way that we hoped, but in the same breath I’ll tell you that when it was 2-0, had we scored and gotten some energy, the whole thing could have turned out differently.”
Minnesota was getting out-shot 12-3, yet had a two-goal lead that was based solely on the play of Kangas.
Getting the nod during the pre-game skate and knowing that he needed to redeem himself from an average showing Friday, the junior made 17 first-period saves, including a vast majority on a UW power play that saw point-blank opportunities from forwards Andy Bohmbach, Michael Davies, Blake Geoffrion and Derek Stepan all denied by Kangas.
“Our guys will have nightmares about some of the things they missed tonight in terms of putting it into the net,” Eaves said.
Those saves failed to compare to Kangas’ stonewalling Brendan Smith on a breakaway early in the second. As a Minnesota power play expires, Stepan hit Smith in stride coming out of the box, but the junior defenseman couldn’t fool Kangas, who got his right blocker out to deflect the shot.
“They got the guy out at the right time and I was able to come up and get a piece of it,” Kangas said. “It kept them scoreless, which was obviously big. We did a good job of limiting most of the stuff to the outside.”
After Kangas denied senior tri-captain Ben Street, after the forward made a nifty move around defenseman Cade Fairchild, and center Patrick White scored his third goal of the season on a simple backhanded attempt at 15:38, it appeared that success wasn’t in the cards for the Badgers.
“After awhile when you are down 2-0 and you are getting a lot of chances, you start to grip the stick a little harder,” Street said. “It’s just hard.”
That doubt started to change shortly into the third. After Geoffrion won a faceoff in the Minnesota zone, Craig Smith slipped the puck back to Jake Gardiner, who was finally able to solve the Kangas riddle by threading a shot over the goalie’s glove, 28 seconds into the third.
Whatever excitement was generated by that tally quickly dissipated as senior Brian Schack rifled home a shot from between the circles at 8:31 to make it 4-1. The goal was a touch of irony for UW. Schack has scored only two career goals and both coming against Wisconsin, the first coming 41 games ago in January 2007.
Budish finished off the Badgers with his second of the night on an empty net goal at 18:59, but the story was all about Kangas, and the Gophers getting an important two points from their border rivals.
“This was a big team win tonight, (but) Kangas has an unbelievable game, standing on top of his head,” Schack said. “He was just a huge contributor to tonight’s win.”