MADISON—Last week it was the struggle on the offensive end that led to the Badgers’ being swept by Denver. This time around, it was a lapse in the defensive end which did Wisconsin in.
The Badgers gave up five goals, including three in a stretch of 3:51 in the second period, and the Gophers shut the door when it counted—despite giving up three third-period goals—to hang on for a 5-4 victory.
Already up 3-1 midway through the second, Danny Irmen put home back-to-back goals on assists from Ryan Potulny and Ryan Stoa 21 seconds apart from each other to complete a hat trick and put the Gophers on cruise control.
“That was the turning point in the game—they scored two goals in one shift,” UW senior captain Adam Burish said. “That was the game right there.”
But it was a little too early to start coasting for Minnesota as Jack Skille, Nick Licari and Matthew Ford all scored for the Badgers in the opening 5:47 of the third frame.
“I think if you look at the script of this game, the first period was a mish-mash, the second period they were clearly the dominating team,” UW coach Mike Eaves said. “It’s a difficult thing to do to change the course of your game … and [we] did a terrific job.”
The Gophers settled down and finished the job over the remaining 14 minutes despite being outshot 17-7 in the third period.
“We did enough … we got a very important win tonight coming in here on a Friday night and getting two points,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said.
UW captain Adam Burish said the mood in the locker room was still upbeat thanks to the comeback bid, but when all was said and done, a once eight-point lead in the WCHA has now dwindled to just two.
When the two teams squared off in the Twin Cities in December it was the Badgers jumping on top in the first minute. In Madison, the Gophers got off to an early start.
Irmen skated in toward the crease and jammed in a loose puck to put the Gophers up 1-0 at just 1:19 of the opening stanza.
Minnesota dictated early on, putting the puck on net as much as possible and clogging the Badgers’ shooting lanes, but UW would tie the game up at 11:48.
Matt Olinger snagged the puck at a point and blasted a shot towards the net. Freshman Ben Street got his stick on it in the slot and redirected it through Kellen Briggs’ legs to make it 1-1.
But the Gophers were determined to take a lead with them into the locker room and did just that with less than two minutes left in what was a physical first 20 minutes.
It was all Gophers in the second period.
Mike Howe found Stoa with a nifty pass through the slot on an odd-man rush and Stoa found the back of the net to make it 3-1 just past the midway point of the second frame. Minnesota would pour it on from there thanks to two more goals from its top line.
With less than six minutes remaining Potulny got the puck to Irmen in the high slot for a shot that beat Connelly to the blocker side. Just 21 seconds later, the two would hook up again as Potulny took the puck from behind the net and passed to Irmen on the right side of the low slot for an easy goal.
Connelly was screened by his own defenseman on the play and the rout seemed to be on at 5-1.
“We had to win with Potulny and Irmen and the older guys,” Lucia said. “The older guys have to perform in this type of environment. Those are the guys that are supposed to put the team on their back.”
The Badgers could have given up at that point, but they never quit.
Skille got the crowd back into the game just three minutes into the final period and when Licari and Ford followed with back-to-back goals two minutes later the roof nearly came off the Kohl Center.
The Badgers were persistent, but Minnesota hung on, despite the pressure.
“One thing we said [in the second intermission] was, ‘Every line scores a goal we’re right back in it,’” Burish said.
Every UW line did get a goal in the third—except for its top-scoring first line. When the horn sounded at the end of the night Minnesota’s top line of Stoa (one goal, two assists), Potulny (four assists) and Irmen (hat trick) was a combined +13 and the Badgers’ front three of Robbie Earl, Joe Pavelski and Burish was a combined -9.
“In the last three months, that’s probably the worst it’s been,” Burish said of his line. “We were out there for three goals tonight and that’s not us—especially in a big game.”
Wisconsin will carry its third-period momentum into Saturday night’s series finale—one that now seems to be a must-win to get back on the track towards the MacNaughton Cup.