MADISON – Earlier in the week, the Wall Street Journal named the Kohl Center the most intimidating venue in all of college hockey. So with 10 of the 20 Gophers players in uniform Friday for the series opener having never skated in the building, it was left to the veterans to do the heavy lifting.
“The juniors and seniors have to lead by example,” said junior Taylor Matson. “The upperclassmen needed to step up, and we did.”
Unlike the last meeting where the Gophers blew a 2-0 and a 3-2 lead to let the Badgers’ survive with a 3-3 tie and a three-point weekend, Minnesota got a postseason kick-in-the-pants decision with a three-goal second period that paved the way to a 5-2 WCHA victory Friday night.
The win is just its second in the last six games, but it comes at a crucial time for Minnesota (13-12-4, 10-10-3 WCHA), which gained vital ground in the race for home ice in the first round in the WCHA playoffs.
A lot has changed in the college hockey landscape since early November, but the memory of what happened that weekend in Mariucci Arena has sat with some of the Gophers’ seniors for the last three months. Consider it no surprise then that the three Minnesota senior forwards – Mike Hoeffel, Jacob Cepis and Pat White – combined for three goals and two assists.
“When you look at how many freshmen we have playing, you can’t rely on them to score in a big game like this,” said Minnesota coach Don Lucia. “The seniors have to do it. It’s there time of year.”
Throw in the blown lead with the 6-0 embarrassment the night before in that November series, consider it extra incentive for a team that has been looking for something to latch on to since the season started. Combined with its 7-3 drubbing of Denver last weekend, Minnesota has scored as many goals in its last two than its last five combined, and appears to have finally found a foothold.
“We’re confident right now and when we get out chances, we’re scoring on them,” said Matson.
On the other hand, Wisconsin (19-11-3, 11-10-2) is starting to slip. While it still controls its own home-ice destiny, the hotly contested race among the top six got a little tighter because of the Badgers’ inability to capitalize on its power play.
Still ranking first in the WCHA on the man advantage, Wisconsin has proven to be reliant on its power play to generate its offense. The Badgers have gotten a conference-leading 37.6 percent of their goals from the power play (41 of 109), including tallied from assistant captain Jake Gardiner and a meaningless one from Jordy Murray in the final 31 seconds.
But with the Badgers being 5-for-35 (14.2 percent) on the power play over the last six games coinciding with their first three-game losing streak since mid.-November, it’s cause for concern, especially since the Badgers’ nine-game home winning streak also ended with a thud.
“It looked like we were biking into the wind,” said UW coach Mike Eaves, whose team never swept Minnesota at home under his watch. “We didn’t make enough hockey plays tonight. It looked like we were really fighting it, and that was the difference in the game.”
The power play was the generate for the goal that seemed to jump start the engines, as Gardiner banged home a wide-open power-play shot from the right circle at 32 seconds in the second period. It was a bit of puck luck, seeing Craig Smith’s shot bank perfectly off the right post and on to his stick, which seemed to give the necessary lift.
Cepis and Matson made sure it was short lived. Cepis answered with a power play goal of his own 70 seconds later, slinging in a rebound from the right post, and Matson connected less than two minutes later with another rebound from the right circle.
Matson capped the strong second period with an unassisted blast from the left circle at 18:40 that effectively ended suspense of a potential comeback in the third.
“In hockey now, two goals are never enough anymore, so we made a big emphasis on that,” said Cepis. “We played good tonight. We didn’t turn the puck over very much, which fueled us.”
Junior goalie Kent Patterson was just as vital as Matson’s second-period streak. Patterson, who allowed two third-period power-play goals in the November tie, made 36 stops, including stifling a Tyler Barnes breakaway midway through the third period that could have injected some life on the home bench.
Cepis added a fifth tally at 11:08 on the power play just minutes later, adding to woes of senior goalie Scott Gudmadnson, who stopped 27 shots and gave up five goals at home for the first time this season.
“We were getting the puck in deep, but we weren’t sustaining the pressure,” said UW senior captain Sean Dolan. “There really wasn’t a rhythm 5-on-5 … We just need to be the ones to get in their first on the forecheck, bring the puck to the net more and create more opportunities for ourselves.”
With five regular-season games remaining, Wisconsin, which has dropped from seven down to the high teens in the Pairwise rankings the last two weeks, is six points behind the cluster ahead of them while Minnesota now only sits a point behind.