Oddly enough in a game that the Gophers won, the turning point was a play which did not go their way.
After Nick Bjugstad was given an extra minor coming out of a melee early in the third period, Erik Haula and Nate Schmidt scored less than three minutes apart for Minnesota (24-12-1, 20-8-0 WCHA) as they defeated Wisconsin (16-16-2, 11-5-2 WCHA) Saturday and celebrated the program's 13th MacNaughton Cup.
With the win, the Gophers are tied for sixth (virtually 7th) with Boston University in the Pairwise rankings.
"It's been fun all six times [that he's won the MacNaughton]," Gophers head coach Don Lucia said after the game. "I'm just happy for our seniors."
Tyler Barnes scored for the Badgers and freshman Joel Rumpel made 31 saves in defeat.
Wisconsin's best chance in the first period came five seconds into the game but despite a stellar opening twenty minutes by the Gophers out-shooting them 15-7, the two teams were tied at zero at the end of the end of the period. Having Bjugstad back helped revitalize the first line and Minnesota did a better job crashing the net in the first five minutes than they did all game Friday. Joel Rumpel stood tall, however, even though they outworked the Badgers and made a couple great saves on two Gopher power plays.
The second period saw Wisconsin outwork the Gophers and force them to take three penalties. All three times the Badgers had great opportunities to score - including a whiffed rebound by Tyler Barnes and defenseman Jake McCabe hitting the post - but Barnes made up for his earlier attempt when he put home another rebound to give them a 1-0 lead midway through the second.
It was the lone blemish for senior goaltender Kent Patterson, who made 17 saves a night after spending the third period watching his backup play for the for first time all season.
"I've seen the [view from the bench] one too many times," he said.
Minnesota continued trying to find a way to beat Rumpel throughout the rest of the second period but to no avail. Even when the freshman goalie was out of position, the Wisconsin defense was able to clear a rebound or get a stick on a shot destined to tie the game.
"[Wisconsin's] playing well right now. They're never easy and Justin Schultz and Mark Zengerle are two of the premiere players in college hockey," said Lucia.
Frustrations rose on both sides with Badgers captain John Ramage took offense to a Kyle Rau hit on Joesph LaBate that wasn't called for a penalty and by the beginning of the third period it was only a matter of when, not if, a fight would break out. Emotions finally boiled over 3:33 into the third period when Nick Bjugstad ran into Rumpel and a ten person scrum broke out. Three players from each side ended up in the penalty box with Bjugstad receiving an extra minor for goaltender interference.
Instead of Wisconsin taking advantage on the power play again or the Gophers not having their leading goal scorer on the ice for 4 minutes like they did all night Friday, the melee was just the thing Minnesota needed to find an opening.
A minute into the penalty kill, Erik Haula and Jake Hansen were on their second shorthanded two-on-one of the game. Rumpel stopped the previous opportunity but Haula saw his own and beat the Badger goalie for his 15th goal of the season to tie the game at one.
"I knew [the Wisconsin defender] was going to take Hansen and took it," said Haula. "I haven't had one all game, it felt great."
The crowd of 10,241 at Mariucci Arena came unglued with the goal, which was only a precursor to what came later.
"That's the loudest I've ever heard the place in my life,"Nate Schmidt said. "It's unbelievable. I was sitting next to [goalie Michael] Shibrowski on the bench after the first goal and couldn't hear him. The crowd was so loud it gave me goosebumps."
Haula's goal gave the Gophers the confidence they had been lacking for much of the weekend and on an ensuing power play with Ramage in the box, Schmidt happened. The Minnesota defenseman, who leads all college hockey defensemen with 30 assists but only has two goals this season, saved the team from taking an offsides call, faked a shot to make a Badger defender go down, went around him and unleashed a cannon of a slap shot over Joel Rumpel's shoulder to give the Gophers the lead with 12:20 remaining.
If the building was loud after Haula's goal, the roof came off for Nate Schmidt.
Wisconsin made Patterson and the defense work with a couple late opportunities but it wasn't enough to stop Minnesota from ending the season and Senior Night on a high note. It was the capstone on a tremendous season for the Gophers and they were able to celebrate a win and being presented the MacNaughton Cup by WCHA Commissioner Bruce McLeod in front of the student section and crowd.
"It's fun to play here," said Erik Haula." I love the fans. I'm just so happy to win the [MacNaughton] Cup with this group of guys."
In the end, as good as a comeback win Saturday night was, the team made sure to point out that there is still more work to be done. But for now, with the MacNaughton in hand and touched by the entire team (forgoing superstition), Saturday is a time to enjoy.
"I'm probably going to celebrate today, tonight and then go back to work on Monday," Haula said.
Minnesota faces Alaska-Anchorage next weekend in the first round of the WCHA Playoffs Friday, Saturday and (if necessarily) Sunday. All three games begin at 7 p.m. Central and will air on Fox Sports North (the exact channel, regular or Plus is yet to be determined).
For more on the Minnesota Golden Gophers, check out The Daily Gopher. For more on the Wisconsin Badgers, check out Bucky's Fifth Quarter. You can also catch up on the WCHA and college hockey over at Western College Hockey.