MINNEAPOLIS — Outstanding individual efforts by Minnesota’s Erik Haula and Nate Schmidt in the third period erased a one goal Wisconsin lead and lifted the Gophers to a 2-1 win over the Badgers on Saturday at Mariucci Arena.
Already assured of the number one seed in the WCHA playoffs, Minnesota’s victory clinches the MacNaughton Cup outright for the Gophers for the first time since 2007. The Gophers led the conference from start to finish in a year when they were picked to finish sixth in both the media and coaches preseason polls.
Minnesota coach Don Lucia was asked if winning the cup was fun.
“It’s been fun all six times,” said Lucia who won the cup three times in his tenure at Colorado College in addition to the three has now has at Minnesota. “I’m just happy for our seniors and our team. Our seniors have been through a lot the last couple of years.”
“I remember coach Johnson saying it’s probably as hard, if not harder, to win the MacNaughton because you’ve got to be good for so long,” said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves, referring to former Badgers coach Bob Johnson. “Congratulations to [Lucia] and his coaching staff and the team; that’s a tough trophy to earn.”
The drama unfolded early in the third period with the Badgers clinging to a 1-0 lead on Tyler Barnes’ power-play goal midway through the second. It began when a skirmish behind the Wisconsin net at 3:33 sent three players from each team to the penalty box for roughing with Minnesota’s Nick Bjugstad earning an additional goalie interference penalty.
On the ensuing Wisconsin power play, Haula stole the puck in the neutral zone sparking a 2-on-1 rush with Jake Hansen. Using Hansen as a decoy, Haula faked to his forehand and beat Wisconsin goalie Joel Rumpel with a backhand shot to tie the game.
“We didn’t play that very well,” Eaves said of the shorthanded odd-man rush. “Our young defenseman gave them too much space and never had the stick support in the middle and allowed them to come across and that’s a learning clip.
“It’s a two-on-one, it’s a good scoring opportunity, but we made it a little easier by the way we played it.”
Less than three minutes later, with Wisconsin captain John Ramage serving an interference penalty and Minnesota pressing, Schmidt dove to knock down Badgers’ defenseman Justin Schultz’s clearing attempt on top of the Minnesota offensive blue line. Schmidt rose to his feet, stepped around a would-be Wisconsin shot blocker, and blasted a shot from the high slot that beat Rumpel over his left shoulder.
“I was just shocked that it went in to be honest, because there was such a conglomerate of people in front of the net,” said Schmidt. “You didn’t know who was who and it just kind of snuck through. It had seeing eyes I guess.”
Seemingly inspired by the evening’s Senior Night festivities, and likely motivated by Friday night’s loss to the Badgers, Minnesota dictated the pace of an up-tempo first period boosted by a pair pair of Gopher power plays. Minnesota outshot Wisconsin 15-7 with three of those coming off the stick of Bjugstad, who returned to the lineup after missing the series opener due to injury.
Barnes’ rebound goal at 10:26 of the middle period opened the scoring in a game becoming increasingly physical. Wisconsin nearly added to its lead later in the period when defenseman Jake McCabe’s shot drilled the crossbar with 3:25 to go as Minnesota’s Kyle Rau was off for interference.
Shortly after Rau left the penalty box, he delivered an open ice hit to Joseph LaBate that left the Wisconsin forward woozy and Eaves looking for a head contact penalty. The game was briefly delayed at that point as the officials huddled and Ramage pleaded Wisconsin’s case, but no penalty was issued.
“Nobody saw it, they said; nobody saw contact to the head,” Eaves said of the officials. “Yet they had to blow the whistle because he can’t get to the bench.”
The second period came to a close with a scrum behind the Badgers net and with Eaves and Mark Zengerle giving the officials an earful after most players had left the ice.
A night after he was pulled to start the third period, Kent Patterson made 17 saves for the win, while Rumpel followed up his 26-save effort in Friday’s win with 31 more in the loss.
“We won the [special teams] battle 2-1 and that’s where we won the game tonight,” said Lucia. “We had some good looks, we had some good chances, I thought their goaltender made some nice saves but, you know what, we got it done.
“The bottom line is that they got to hang a banner tonight.”
Minnesota (24-12-1, 20-8-0) hosts Alaska-Anchorage in next weekend’s first round WCHA playoff series while Wisconsin (16-16-2, 11-15-2 WCHA) travels to Denver after Bemidji State came back from a 3-1 second-period deficit to defeat UAA 5-4 in Anchorage late on Saturday to move past Wisconsin into ninth place in the final standings.
“This is step one and it’s a tremendous accomplishment,” said Lucia. “Now, we have to prepare for Alaska [-Anchorage] this upcoming weekend.
“It just gets better now.”