The good news for Minnesota hockey fans is that St. Cloud State beat Minnesota Duluth 2-1 Friday night and the Gophers clinched a share of the MacNaughton Cup and a date next weekend with Alaska-Anchorage.
The bad news? Everything that happened at Mariucci Arena.
Wisconsin (16-15-2, 11-14-2 WCHA) sophomore Mark Zengerle had four points (1 goal and 3 assists) and Joel Rumpel made 26 saves as the Badgers handed Minnesota (23-12-1, 19-8-0 WCHA) their worst loss of the season Friday 4-1.
"We played Denver a couple weeks ago at home [beating the Pioneers 5-2]. This ranks up there." Badgers head coach Mike Eaves said when asked where this game ranks for Wisconsin.
Nico Sacchetti scored the lone Gopher goal with 1:02 remaining in the game and backup goalie Michael Shibrowski made his season debut in the third period. Despite the loss, Minnesota remains in seventh place in the Pairwise.
Solid defensive play from both teams opened the game as Wisconsin was able to neutralize the Gophers' speed by limiting their passing lanes and movement. Minnesota, meanwhile, came out physical and hit every Badger they could, much to the delight of the 9,969 fans at Mariucci. They also blocked 8 shots.
The turning point of the game, however, happened with 2:01 left in the period when Tyler Barnes found an opening for his 9th goal of the season after Kyle Rau failed to clear a puck in front of Minnesota goalie Kent Patterson. The Gophers were never able to respond.
"I felt that the first goal took it out of us. We tried but it just didn't happen," said Minnesota senior forward Jake Hansen.
The Badgers continued...well badgering the home team throughout the second period as Zengerle played a big role in all three goals. The first saw him force Ben Marshall to turn over the puck and the sophomore found Ryan Little. He did the rest, scoring on a wrist shot 5:25 into the second period to give Wisconsin a 2-0 lead.
"I think getting the early lead tonight was key," said Eaves. "This building is tough to play in and we took the crowd out of it.
Michael Mersch scored his 14th goal of the season four minutes later on the power play when Patterson thought a shot by Jake McCabe was frozen. It wasn't. The fourth goal saw Zengerle finally getting in on the goal-scoring action when he undressed Gopher defenseman Seth Helgeson with some fancy stickhandling and shot the puck past Patterson with 4:17 remaining in the second period to make it 4-0.
"He had an outstanding offensive night for us. There are a lot of fine forwards in the WCHA and Mark is one of them," said an exuberant Eaves about Zengerle.
Minnesota were without leading goal scorer Nick Bjugstad Friday and at times that was very apparent. Wisconsin's defense is talented and they were able to build upon Nebraska-Omaha in the third period last Saturday by keeping the Gophers outside of the crease. They out-shot the Badgers 27-20 but the vast majority were from outside the face-off dots. At times Minnesota defensemen would be able to have shots go wide off the wall,come back in front of Rumpel and no one would be within 15 feet.
"You take a guy [like Bjugstad] out of your lineup and it changes the chemistry of the whole team," said Eaves while praising the effort of the Badger blue line.
As good as Travis Boyd was Friday night (and for a player stepping up from the fourth line he didn't look too out of place), being without Nick's speed and mostly size hampered what has been the Gophers' top line. However, there's a good chance that Bjugstad will play tomorrow according to Coach Lucia, adding that they will see how feels.
The other story of the game was the end of Kent Patterson's reign as the only goalie to play for Minnesota this season. Down 4-0, backup Michael Shibrowski took the ice for the third period, ending a streak that stretches back to December 3, 2010 and includes170 regular season periods and 12 overtimes.
"[The four goals in two periods] are not on Kent, it's on us," said Hansen. The forwards played bad and we let him down.
Shibrowski played well in a mop-up role, making a couple big saves to keep it a four-goal game and didn't let the Badgers capitalize on any rebound opportunities. Sacchetti added his third goal of the season after tipping in a Jake Parenteau shot and the Gophers avoided their first shutout since March 12, 2011.
Minnesota can be thankful that they won a share of the MacNaughton Cup with Minnesota-Duluth losing 2-1 to St. Cloud State but no team wants to win a trophy by backing into it. The good news for the Gophers is that as bad as tonight was, as good as Mark Zengerle, Joel Rumpel, Justin Schultz and the Wisconsin defense were there is another game tomorrow night.
"We've played well on Saturday nights," said Hansen, one of seven seniors on this year's team. "It's senior night. We'll definitely give our best effort tomorrow."
Minnesota and Wisconsin play again tomorrow (Saturday March 3rd) at Mariucci Arena. The game starts at 7 p.m. CST and will air on Fox Sports North Plus (find your channel here).
For more coverage of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, check out The Daily Gopher and for Wisconsin coverage read Bucky's Fifth Quarter. You can also find more on the WCHA at Western College Hockey.