MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin and its penalty kill could only hold on for so long.
Playing the only team in the nation ranked in the top 10 in scoring offense, scoring defense, power play and penalty kill tends to wear down a lot of teams, especially one offensively-challenged like Wisconsin.
In the undercard for Sunday’s national-televised matinee at Soldier Field, No. 2 Minnesota’s three power-play goals, including a back-breaking tally in the second period, was enough for the Gophers to pull out a 3-2 victory in front of 13,611 at the Kohl Center.
When the conference schedule was released, Minnesota coach Don Lucia circled the importance of the five-game February road swing, all against rivals, and how it likely would impact Minnesota’s chance to repeat as MacNaughton Cup champions in its final year in the WCHA.
Now sitting at 3-1-0 (on the road trip), the Gophers (20-5-4, 12-5-4 WCHA) move into a second-place tie with idle North Dakota and a single point behind idle St. Cloud State.
“The next five were going to be on the road in the maroon jerseys against quality opponents,” said Lucia. “Mankato and St. Cloud State will be in the NCAA tournament and Wisconsin is fighting its way back in. We knew it was going to be a tall order.”
Between two rivals playing for the 265th time in a series that dates back to 1922, it was a four-minute stretch late in the second period that made the difference.
With both teams deadlocked at one, Wisconsin top-line winger Joseph LaBate drew two minors in one shift, one of which prevented Kyle Rau from converting an open-net goal, but gave the nation’s third-ranked power play four minutes to work.
With 34 seconds left in the man-advantage, junior center Nick Bjugstad fired home his 16th goal at 18:12 past sophomore goalie Joel Rumpel (40 saves) from the left circle.
“That was huge,” said Lucia. “We were kind of out-of-sorts on [that power play]. We would have liked to have a whistle or two, but Nick was wide-open on the flank and that’s what big-time players do. They score those types of goals.”
The sequence was even more frustrating for Wisconsin (12-10-7, 9-7-7), as its countless clearing attempts gave them two odd-man rushes it couldn’t convert before leaving Bjugstad open at the left circle.
“We got caught in a long shift,” said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves of the sequence leading to the power play. “We got tired and when you get tight, bad things happen. The bad things there were two minor penalties.”
Seth Ambroz continued Minnesota’s power-play dominance with his goal in the third period that proved to be the game-winner, getting enough of the puck for it to slip over the goal line with two seconds remaining on the advantage.
Minnesota finished three-for-four on the power play, marking the first time this season the Badgers gave up at least three power-play goals.
“They know where everybody is on the ice,” said UW freshman Nic Kerdiles about the Gophers’ power play. “They move the puck crisp. They’re a good team and they showed it tonight. We were a little undisciplined.”
After missing the teams’ first series in November as part of his NCAA-mandated suspension, Kerdiles jumped right into the border war by converting at 14:32 off a perfect pass from Mark Zengerle – a play set up by Tyler Barnes’ aggressive defense behind the net and Zengerle’s pass between two defenders.
Barnes made things interesting with his seventh tally of the season with 1:02 left, but Wisconsin couldn’t further solve the riddle of freshman goalie Adam Wilcox (28 saves), who was remarkable at times to up his record to 19-4-4.
The Badgers didn’t do themselves any favors by being outshot 20-9 in the first period, which included giving up a power-play goal to sophomore Sam Warning, and 43-30 for the game, and the eighth-best penalty kill in the league couldn’t stop a team that hasn’t lost a series all season.
Still sitting in a tie for fifth, the importance now for Wisconsin is to conjure up some more outdoor hockey magic. The Badgers are a perfect 2-0 in outdoor games and both victories have come against Big Ten institutions (Ohio State 2006, Michigan 2010).
“There are lessons learned from this game,” said Eaves. “We’ve got to fix those things and play better, play a better game.”