In April of 2003, Minnesota won its second consecutive NCAA championship, knocking off New Hampshire 5-1 to seal the deal in Buffalo, N.Y. The title defense was the first in over three decades, putting the Gophers in elite company.
The question bouncing around college hockey, of course: could Minnesota make it a dynasty with three titles in a row to match Michigan, which pulled off the three-peat in the championship’s infancy, from 1951 to 1953?
That same year, the Wisconsin Badgers likely saw the title game on television, or with ticket in hand — for those who watched it at all. Wisconsin had just completed a 13-23-4 season with an eighth-place finish in the WCHA and a first-round playoff loss to Minnesota State.
The results of that season, head coach Mike Eaves’ first in Madison, seemed to augur a long and potentially painful rebuilding process.
Less than two years later, Minnesota hasn’t fallen far from its perch, but Wisconsin is bent on making room at the top for itself. The Badgers have spent most of the 2004-05 season well up the national rankings, hovering near the top of the WCHA standings as well.
“We’ve talked about the fact that our record indicates that we’re a pretty good team,” said Eaves. “The next 10 games will determine whether we can go from good to great.”
The 10-game stretch Eaves referenced represent a trial by fire for a young Wisconsin team. After Minnesota, the Badgers’ last four series of the regular season include WCHA tilts against Denver, Colorado College and North Dakota — all nationally-ranked — and Minnesota-Duluth, the league’s preseason favorite.
These Badgers are built from the goal out, thanks to the steady consistency of netminder Bernd Bruckler. The native of Graz, Austria, gives Wisconsin the luxury of knowing the last line of defense is a sound one.
“If they make a mistake, he’s there to make the save,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia of Bruckler. “They can win a lot of games with their goaltender and special teams.”
That they do. Coming into their weekend series against Minnesota, the Badgers ranked among the national leaders in special teams, including a startling 90.4% clip on the penalty kill.
Minnesota, meanwhile, was a steamroller in the first half of the season, cruising to a 16-4-0 record against one of the nation’s toughest schedules. That excellence, combined with the fact that Minnesota will host the West Regional this March, led many to concede the Gophers a Frozen Four berth before the season was even half over.
Those predictions look less certain now, though it’s not as if Minnesota’s NCAA tournament life is at stake. In early February, the Gophers were still tied for second in USCHO.com’s PairWise Rankings, a testament to their spectacular first half.
But scoring and goaltending went dry after the Gophers got plenty of both in the first three months. Lucia placed the burden with the team’s difference-makers.
“The guys we need to step up and lead us, need to step up and lead us,” Lucia said.
Among those guys is Ryan Potulny, who led the nation in goals much of the first half but dropped off after the New Year. Potulny scored a goal in each game against Wisconsin to seemingly get back on track, though those were just his second and third in 12 games during calendar year 2005.
The lack of production has been difficult for the Minnesota coaching staff to solve.
“As coaches, we’re tired of spending 45 minutes or an hour every day deciding who should play with who,” said Lucia of the Gophers’ musical-chairs lines. “We don’t have to do that if they’re playing well.”
Wisconsin doesn’t need much scoring to win, not with Bruckler in net and defensive stalwarts such as Tom Gilbert and freshman Kyle Klubertanz. On Friday, Minnesota outshot the Badgers 24-17, but Bruckler turned away 23 shots and the UW power play accounted for one of Wisconsin’s three goals. The lone goal for Minnesota came on the power play, giving Bruckler five straight games without allowing an even-strength marker.
“Bruckler made the saves, and that’s why he’s an All-American,” said Lucia.
But Minnesota showed its mettle Saturday, rallying from a 3-2 deficit in the third period for a 5-3 win. The winning goal came from Barry Tallackson, whom Lucia had singled out the day before as a critical element for a successful Gopher season, and whom the coach moved from the fourth line to the second between games.
Also rising to the occasion was goaltender Kellen Briggs. After permitting three goals on 17 shots Friday, he took a seat on the bench in favor of Justin Johnson Saturday. But midway through the second, with three Badger goals again on the board, Lucia went to the bullpen and Briggs performed, stopping all 14 UW shots in just under 30 minutes of play.
The significance of the win was not lost on the sophomore goaltender, who struggled through a poor month that matched his team’s.
“We were just really sick of losing,” said Briggs. “We had a terrible month of January, [but] it’s still one win. … We have to come out every weekend like that.”
The Saturday loss and resulting split made clear to the Badgers that they still have work to do — not that Eaves ever said anything different.
“This has got to make guys a little ticked off,” said Badger captain Adam Burish, “to say, ‘We had this game in our hands, and we let it slip away.'”
“We just weren’t ready in the third period, and that’s the difference between a good team and a great team,’ concurred Gilbert.
For the Gophers, the split had a positive face.
“This is probably the best they’ve felt about themselves in a long time,” said Lucia of his players. “Hopefully, we can use this as a springboard to get back to where we were.”
Where they were — a number-one ranking, first place in the WCHA, a national championship? Whatever Minnesota’s goal, Wisconsin plans to be there in opposition.
“This is serious,” said Bruckler of the Badgers’ stretch run. “We know what’s on task for us, and we want to get the job done.”
Asked Saturday if the Badgers wanted to see Minnesota again in the playoffs, Gilbert’s answer had the ring of fact.