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CHICAGO – Playing in its first outdoor hockey event, No.2 Minnesota wanted to finish off a sweep and inch closer to first place in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
Problem was that No.18 Wisconsin needed a win more, and conjured more outdoor magic for arguably its best performance of the season.
Playing in perfect weather conditions, the Badgers’ three second-period goals in a 3:19 span were enough to upend No.2 Minnesota, 3-2, in front of 52,051 fans in the nightcap of the Hockey City Classic at Soldier Field.
“We’re in the dog days of the WCHA, and having an event like this is an emotional energizer,” said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves, as Wisconsin (13-10-7, 10-7-7 WCHA) moved into the sixth and final home ice spot in the conference with three weekends remaining. “It’s not just another game in the second half.”
It’s no secret that the Badgers have work to do over the final month of the season in order to make their first NCAA tournament since finishing runner-up in 2010. So with the Badgers starting a pivot stretch with a 3-2 setback to the Gophers Friday, being outworked in giving up three power play goals, the two days served as a reminder of the little things needed to compete against elite teams.
As a result, Wisconsin killed off both of Minnesota’s power play and didn’t take a penalty in the third period, thanks in part to some suspect ice conditions that took some of the zip off the best power play unit in the nation.
“The ice conditions de-skilled their power play a little bit,” senior captain John Ramage said. “It definitely worked in our favor.”
After being outshot 15-6 in a scoreless first period and rarely threatening Minnesota (20-6-4, 12-6-4), the message in the Wisconsin locker room was poignant: get pucks on net and see what happened. It was so simple that it worked.
“Based on who we are and what are strengths are as a hockey team, we need to keep it simple, be really smart,” said Eaves. “That helps us play effective and give us a chance to be successful.”
Freshman Kevin Schulze opened the scoring when his shot near the blue line bounced and trickled through traffic and past Adam Wilcox at 13:03 in the second period.
“We knew the first goal would be critical in this game,” said Minnesota Don Lucia. “In these conditions, it was much easier to play with the lead.”
Ramage followed with another blue-line shot a minute later that caromed off a Gophers’ defenseman and into the net, and junior Sean Little buried a rebound off a long shot for his second-goal of the season after aggressively attacking the net.
“We weren’t on our toes (to start), but in the second period we literally threw everything we had at them,” said Ramage. “Shots from the corner, shots from anywhere on the ice, and we had a couple good bounces.”
“I thought we got away from our game,” added Lucia of the second period. “We took a couple penalties we normally don’t make and all of a sudden we start trying to make plays that weren’t there under the conditions we had. They took advantage.”
The Badgers attempted only six shots through the first 16-plus minutes of the period, but three found the back of the net.
“That was an explosive period for us in terms of goal scoring,” said Eaves, as UW has scored fewer than three goals 20 times this season.
That was enough for sophomore goalie Joel Rumpel. After turning away 40 shots Friday night, Rumpel stopped 36 shots, only allowing Seth Ambroz to score a persistent goal early in the third period and Zach Budish to make things interesting with 1:42 remaining.
On the weekend, Rumpel stopped 76 of 81 shots he faced, and earned the game puck following the series finale.
“He kept us in the game in the first period,” said Little. “We didn’t help him out much.”
Wisconsin improved to a 3-0 in outdoor games, having beaten Ohio State in 2006 at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field and Michigan in 2010 at Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium. Both of those seasons ended with Wisconsin playing for a national championship.
“We battle back today,” said Ramage. “In this atmosphere, I think it’s going to be huge for us moving forward.”