MINNEAPOLIS — It wasn’t always pretty, and it never looked easy, but with a weekend sweep against Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team returns home with six games left in conference play and a tie for first place in the WCHA.
The Badgers came away from the series with a 5-4 win Saturday night and a 3-2 win Friday night, but the biggest victory may be the confidence the team gained from the sweep at Mariucci Arena.
Entering the weekend, UW had won only twice at the Mariucci Arena over the past eight years. Fittingly enough, both of those wins against Minnesota came during the national championship season in 2005-06. After recording its first sweep against the Golden Gophers in three years, the current edition of the Badgers has at least one thing in common with Wisconsin’s most recent national champions.
“You talk to anyone around the league and coming to Mariucci, it’s a big deal,” senior goaltender Shane Connelly said. “To leave here — maybe playing the Gophers for the last time — to come out with two wins is definitely incredible. … I have been here my freshman year when the seniors walked off with a sweep too, so it is definitely sweet to leave this place with two wins.”
Saturday, the game proved to be a test of Wisconsin’s mental maturity as the Gophers made run after run to keep the game close. In all, UW gave the lead back twice in the game but managed to persevere despite a late goal by Minnesota’s Tony Lucia to cut the deficit to one.
Considering the Badgers have failed to close out a sweep the past two series, holding off for the win Saturday night showed head coach Mike Eaves the progress his team has made over the course of the season.
“In any battle there is turning points,” Eaves said. “And tonight the key battle was we are up 3-1 and they came back and tied it 3-3. … We did some real good things with the lead and found a way to win tonight as opposed to the last two Saturday’s when we lost 4-3 and 3-2.”
“That was a big question mark coming into Saturday night games, if we could close out,” Connelly added. “Especially on the road, it was a big time environment and I think getting the first goal — and just getting off to a good start — we were able to create energy.”
After being outshot by the Gophers 19-6 in the first period of Friday’s game, Eaves emphasized the importance of starting with energy on the road for Saturday’s game. Considering Wisconsin outshot Minnesota 12-9 in the first frame and came away with a 2-1 lead, it seems the message was received.
“One of the things we talked about as a team was we felt that we didn’t play to our capabilities last night,” Eaves said. “We lost respect, our own respect, and one of the themes was to play well enough and hard enough, like the way that we know we can, to get that self-respect back. And we did that tonight.”
Junior defenseman Jamie McBain recorded the primary assists on both Badger goals in the first period and finished the game with a goal and two assists. Junior forward John Mitchell — who was ejected from Friday’s game for game misconduct — chipped in with two goals of his own, including the game-winner in the third period.
“At the end of the power play, I moved the puck out to the point to Cody, and he did a good job of getting the puck through,” Mitchell said. “It was kind of a scrum; I kicked the puck to my backhand, threw it on net and it just had eyes and legs. That’s all I can really say about that.”
Friday, the Badgers capitalized on the few opportunities they created and relied on the superb goaltending of Connelly to keep the Gophers off the board until the third period. With Minnesota totaling 19 shots in the first period to Wisconsin’s six, Eaves couldn’t say enough about the play of his senior goaltender.
The game took an unexpected turn in the Badgers’ favor when Mitchell was assessed a five-minute checking from behind penalty and ejected from the game. Not only did the Badgers manage to kill the entire penalty, but McBain also netted a shorthanded goal off a face-off in the Minnesota defensive zone.
“When Mitch got his penalty, that could have gone one or two ways,” Eaves said. “That could have been a built-in excuse for us, or we could have responded the way we did. We got a goal, and I think that was the turning point of the game.”
Freshman Derek Stepan and junior Andy Bohmbach each found the back of the net once to give UW a 3-0 lead heading into the final period. Although Connelly gave up two goals in the third to make the win a bit more difficult, the senior claimed he was never worried.
“In the back of my mind I knew they weren’t going to beat me three times to tie the game,” Connelly said. “Just the way the pucks were hitting me, the defense did an incredible job.”