With how bad the Gophers hockey team played last night, there was only room for improvement. That's exactly what happened Saturday night because the Maroon and Gold were a much better team than their neighbors to the East.
Taylor Matson, Nick Bjugstad and Wassau, Wisconsin native Nate Condon each scored third period goals as top-ranked Minnesota (10-2-0, 7-1-0 WCHA) defeated Wisconsin (5-6-1, 4-5-1 WCHA) 4-1 at the Kohl Center to split the two game series. Don Lucia earned his 300th win as the Gophers head coach.
However for as good the team played, it did not seem like they would be rewarded for their improvement. Minnesota came out with much more energy Saturday than last night and controlled play in the Badgers zone. The Gophers out-shot Wisconsin 12-3 in the first twenty minutes but ended the period tied at one.
Seth Helgeson scored his first goal of the year 6:14 into the game to give Minnesota a 1-0 lead. The junior defenseman got a low sharp shot from the blue line past Badgers goalie Joel Rumpel. The Gophers looked at times like they would score a second goal but it was Wisconsin's Tyler Barnes who would get the next goal ten minutes later. Barnes ended up stationed on the backdoor during a stretch of 4 on 4 play and John Ramage found him for his sixth goal of the season.
Both goalies were able to keep their team in the game for the second period. Barnes had another great chance on the backdoor but senior goaltender Kent Patterson was able to move from his left post to the right post and make a remarkable save. Rumpel was equally impressive with Minnesota having a good few shorthanded opportunities but it was a five minute major towards the end of the period where the freshman was at his best.
With 3:12 left in the second period, Badger forward Michael Mersch ended up being ejected from the game on a questionable contact to the head penalty. That gave the Gophers a five minute major and while they were able to create a few good chances - including Nick Bjugstad hitting the post - Rumpel stood tall and Wisconsin killed all five minutes of the penalty.
Unfortunately for the Badgers, killing the major ended up being the high point of the game for Wisconsin. Minnesota continued to maintain pressure in the Badger zone as the home team looked tired in the second night of a back-to-back. It was no surprise then when Taylor Matson finally broke through for the Gophers 6:14 into the third period. The senior captain was able to sneak the puck through Rumpel's legs for his third goal of the season.
Matson's goal opened the dam as a tired Wisconsin team was forced to play more aggressive. Despite a couple chances to tie the game, it was clear that the Gophers were the better team Saturday. With 7:44 left Nick Bjugstad intercepted a lazy Badger pass and blasted a shot home to make it 3-1. It was followed by Wisconsin native Nate Condon, who grew up watching the Badgers, scoring in his home state for the second consecutive year. Condon scored on a breakaway caused by outworking the Badgers defense to make it 4-1 Gophers with less than five minutes and put the game completely out of reach.
Minnesota has plenty to be happy with from Saturday's game. After being out of position and giving up some bad breakaways, the defense clamped down and did not not allow Wisconsin many chances. The third line of Condon, Matson and Seth Ambroz were magnificent after not factoring into the scoring for a couple weeks. Two players scored and the third (Ambroz) was instrumental in screening the goalie on Helgeson's goal.
It was also great to see the first line of Kyle Rau, Bjugstad and Zach Budish rebound tonight after being shut down by the Badgers Friday. After how poor the three played, it was important for them to bounce back and have a better Saturday. Good players are able rebound from adversity and that's what the top line did.
In fact that's a case you can make for Don Lucia's squad. Regardless, the Gophers ended up with two points for the weekend in Madison and enter next weekend's home-and-home series against St. Cloud State with some momentum from the road trip.