With how tight the WCHA can be, no team can afford to take a night off. Unfortunately, that's exactly what the Gophers did and the top-ranked team in college hockey ended up paying for their mistakes and sloppy play.
Mark Zengerle and Keegan Meuer 45 seconds apart as Wisconsin (5-5-1, 4-4-1 WCHA) won 3-1 handed Minnesota (9-2-0, 6-1-0 WCHA) their first conference loss of the season at the Kohl Center. Freshman goaltender Joel Rumpel made 24 saves and the Badgers defense held the Gophers offense in check.
It was apparent early on that Minnesota did not bring their "A" game Friday. Normally the Maroon and Gold are able to dominate the opening twenty minutes but they were unable to get anything going offensively other than 58 seconds of power play time from a Michael Mersch interference penalty. Wisconsin's defense was able to stop any cycle and kept the nation's top offense on the perimeter. While the first period ended scoreless, the Badgers had more opportunities and were able to move the puck and Tyler Barnes and Zengerle did a great controlling play.
Gophers goalie Kent Patterson has been a stable presence this season and made a couple good saves in the first period; including one of Mark Zengerle. However Zengerle was able to get the last laugh on Patterson as he finally got one past the junior goalie. Wisconsin took advantage of a poor pinch by Seth Helgeson to create a 2x1 and Barnes was able to feed an one-timer to the sophomore for his fifth goal of the season 5:28 into the second period. Before the dust settled any further, Keegan Meuer scored on an awkward goal as his sharp angle shot went in off of Minnesota defenseman Ben Marshall's stick.
Wisconsin is a good defensive team and is tough to take on with a 2-0 lead. Despite that, the Badgers were not done scoring and Michael Mersch, who was previously stopped by Pattersonon an earlier breakaway, made it 3-0 Wisconsin on a breakaway 11:06 into the second period.
Throughout the game, Minnesota was unable to get into any rhythm and looked sloppy and flat-footed. The top line of Kyle Rau, Nick Bjugstad and Zach Budish were completely shut down by Wisconsin and ended up being -2. It was so bad that Gophers head coach Don Lucia ended up breaking up the lines which have worked all season in an effort to get any offense going in the third period. Two posts, including one by Seth Ambroz, kept the score 3-0 until a late power play goal by Jake Hansen with 1:08 left broke up Rumpel's bid for his first collegiate shutout.
There are plenty of lessons to take from Friday. While the Gophers played a poor game, Wisconsin deserves a lot of credit for taking advantage of their opportunities and Minnesota errors. One thing they had trouble with last weekend against North Dakota was conducting clean line changes; especially when they are making the longer change in the second period. Although the Fighting Sioux didn't score on a couple chances, the Badgers created three odd man rushes and breakaways from it. Justin Schultz, who played a remarkable game tonight, led Mersch with a beautiful 100 foot breakout pass for the third goal because every nearby Gopher was changing.
That wasn't the only error or bad decision by the Maroon and Gold tonight but for a team which has prided itself on hard work and playing a full sixty minute game this season, Friday's result can't sit well. No team can sit on its laurels and that's especially true in November. Minnesota is going to have to work hard tomorrow if they want to prove they are the number one ranked team for a reason and garner a split with the Badgers.
Otherwise, why bother showing up?
Minnesota and Wisconsin meet again 7:30 PM tomorrow night (November 12) at the Kohl Center in Madison, WI. The game will be broadcast on BTN and streamed on ESPN 1500. For more Gophers coverage, check out The Daily Gopher and for the Badgers perspective on their victory, read Bucky's Fifth Quarter.