MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota clinched a share of its first MacNaughton Cup since 2007 on Friday night, but the Gophers’ hopes of hoisting the Cup in celebration before their home crowd were put on hold for at least one more night.
Behind Mark Zengerle’s goal and three assists and two points from Ryan Little (1-1–2), the Wisconsin Badgers rolled to a 4-1 victory over No. 4 Minnesota at Mariucci Arena.
“Playing in this building can be difficult if the crowd gets into it,” said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves. “We were able to get the lead and take them out of it and we just kept adding.
“And Mark [Zengerle] had an outstanding offensive night for us; the timely goals that we created were a key element tonight.”
“We knew there was a lot at stake, I mean they were going for that cup, and we’re trying to get up there and get ready for playoffs,” said Zengerle. “They have a lot of energy in this building, and we kind of weathered it right away.
“To get a goal in the first and then the second wasn’t really what we were expecting, but it was really nice.”
With the Gophers (23-12-1, 19-8-0) entering the weekend with a two-point lead over second-place Minnesota-Duluth, the loss meant Minnesota did not learn its fate until roughly 40 minutes after its game when St. Cloud State held on to defeat the Bulldogs, 2-1, in St. Cloud.
Minnesota coach Don Lucia was asked if the Gophers backed in to the league title.
“There is no such thing as backing into anything,” Lucia responded. “That’s what you play 28 [conference] games for.”
The Badgers already led 3-0 with less than five minutes remaining in the second period when Zengerle essentially put the game away. The sophomore forward picked up the puck deep in his own zone, wove his way into the Minnesota end and made a nifty move on Gophers defenseman Seth Helgeson before beating Patterson to his blocker side.
“I was kind of actually running out of real estate there and [decided to] go for a move and it worked out perfect,” said Zengerle.
With 26 saves, Wisconsin freshman goaltender Joel Rumpel won his 11th game of the season and backstopped the Badgers (16-15-2, 11-14-2 WCHA) to their third consecutive, and fourth overall, road win of the season.
Surprisingly, however, Rumpel was not the only freshman goalie to see action on the night.
Minnesota’s Kent Patterson was replaced by rookie Michael Shibrowski to begin the third period after making 11 saves on 15 shots through two periods. Shibrowski’s insertion ended Patterson’s consecutive minutes streak at 3,414:13, which spanned more than 57 games.
Shibrowski shutout the Badgers in the final period with five saves in his collegiate debut.
“They were the better team tonight in basically every phase of the game,” said Lucia. “It’s disappointing, but there’s nothing we can do about it now.”
The Gophers set a physical tone early with some glass-rattling hits, but offense was difficult to come by until the Badgers struck late in the opening period.
Zengerle won a faceoff in the right circle to Ryan Little, who spun and fired a shot that rebounded off of Patterson’s pads right to Tyler Barnes, who buried his ninth goal of the season at 17:59 of the first period.
Aiding Wisconsin’s cause was a key penalty kill midway through the first in which Minnesota moved the puck well, but couldn’t find an opening.
“I thought we did a really good job of shot blocking there and didn’t really give them grade ‘A’ scoring chances,” said Eaves. “It’s a turning point; if they get a goal, the crowd’s into it and from there you don’t know where the energy goes in the building.”
Wisconsin doubled its lead at 5:25 of the second when Zengerle picked off a partially-fanned-on outlet pass by Minnesota defenseman Ben Marshall and fed a pass to Little, whose wrist shot from the top of the right circle beat Patterson over his left shoulder.
The goal was just the third of the year for Little, who was added to Wisconsin’s top line this week because Eaves said he wanted more balance in his lineup.
“One thing that Ryan can do, he can skate and create space for his linemates,” said Eaves. “He was able to add offensively playing with those guys, and it was a good thing for us.”
Less than five minutes later, with Minnesota’s Nico Sacchetti off for hooking, Wisconsin’s Michael Mersch potted his 14th of the year when he pounced on a loose puck at the top of the crease that a stunned Patterson thought he had secured.
A late goal by Sacchetti ended Rumpel’s shutout bid and provided the final margin in an impressive Wisconsin win.
The Gophers played without star forward Nick Bjugstad, who has been nursing an injury, but Lucia aptly pointed out Bjugstad’s absence had no impact on the outcome.
“The way the rest of our guys played it wouldn’t have mattered if Nick was in the lineup tonight,” said Lucia.
However, Eaves fully expects to see Minnesota’s leading scorer suit up on Saturday.
“Chances are they’re going to have their big guy back in the lineup tomorrow,” Eaves said of Bjugstad. “It’s funny; you take one player out of your lineup but it changes the chemistry of your whole team, so he’ll be a go-to guy tomorrow and they’ll come back with their [backs against the wall] for sure.”
Zengerle, however, is looking forward to the challenge.
“At every level, you want to be playing your best hockey going into the playoffs,” said Zengerle. “So we’re trying to keep on banging on the drum like we’ve been saying and keep rolling into tomorrow too.”