CHICAGO — Spectators at the Hockey City Classic could not have asked for better conditions when the Wisconsin men’s hockey team took the ice at Soldier Field Sunday in an outdoor matchup with border-battle rival and second-ranked Minnesota.
With the sun shining, and the temperature sitting at a mild 32 degrees for much of the afternoon, fans were treated to a pair of matchups between four ranked teams.
Even better for the Badger fans who made the trek south, by the time the third period clock ticked down to zero, Wisconsin had come away with a 3-2 win — the icing on top of the cake after a disappointing 3-2 loss to the Golden Gophers less than 48 hours earlier.
Playing against the No. 2 team in the nation in Minnesota back in mid-November and earning just one point in his last three encounters with the Gophers, head coach Mike Eaves’ decision to give up home-ice advantage at the Kohl Center was questioned with renewed intensity after Friday’s loss — but Eaves never once wavered on his decision.
Now, after a crucial win that brings the Badgers back within one point of Minnesota in the WCHA standings, Eaves’ decision to play in Chicago suddenly has a brighter look to it.
Weather slows down Minnesota attack
Despite the hype surrounding the outdoor matchup between the two bitter rivals in the weeks leading up to the game and the spectacle in front of 56,051 fans that unfolded, ice conditions proved to be a factor in the game’s outcome and they dictated the pace at which both teams were able to play.
In the second game of the doubleheader event, the Badgers and Gophers began their matchup on an ice sheet that had already taken a considerable beating from the No. 3 Miami (OH) and No. 12 Notre Dame teams to come before them.
To make matters worse, while the crowd welcomed the mild weather, it turned the ice to slush in some areas on the rink, slowing the puck and players down considerably, and confining both teams to a much slower pace of play.
The slower conditions left Minnesota — a team that depends on quick play and counterattacks to catch its opponents’ defenses off-guard — handicapped.
“I knew what was going to happen before the game,” Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said. “It’s all about advancing zone by zone, you’re not going to be able to make a lot of pretty plays and you have to be able to adjust.”
Ranked first in the nation with an average of close to four goals per game coming into the weekend series and first in the WCHA converting on the power play over 26 percent of the time, the Gophers had gotten off to a fast start in the series when they scored three goals — all on the power play — against the Badgers Friday.
But Sunday proved different outdoors at Soldier Field.
While Minnesota still easily bested Wisconsin in shots on goal — earning 43 to the Badgers 30 — UM was held scoreless through the first two periods as the UW defense was much more successful containing the Gophers explosive offensive lines in the difficult outdoor environment.
Capitalizing on the few chances they were given, the Badgers’ simple style of play turned the game on its head and allowed UW to score three goals in less than four minutes in the second period, stunning a more-skilled Gopher team.
Senior defenseman John Ramage — the only player on the ice with outdoor hockey experience — attributed the Badgers’ breakout second period to the team’s ability to use the conditions to their advantage.
“The second period we threw everything that we had at them,” Ramage said. “[Our shots] took a couple of good bounces and things went it.”
Badgers stay level-headed
Following a poor display Friday that saw the Badgers allow four power play chances to their talented opponents, Wisconsin limited the number of chances Minnesota received on the power play Sunday — giving them just two tries on the man-advantage and zero goals in three periods of play.
“It started with [goaltender Joel Rumpel] tonight,” Ramage said. “Then the ice conditions kind of deskilled their power play a little bit. We’ll take it.”
While tensions still ran high between the rivals, scuffles between the Gophers and Badgers resulted in roughing penalties for both teams — keeping the teams even at four men on the ice.
Throughout this season, Wisconsin has outscored its opponents when teams are at even strength and it was no different Sunday— scoring all three of their goals with teams at even strength, while only allowing two goals to Minnesota at even strength.
For Eaves, the Badgers did exactly what they needed to do to earn a much-needed two points in the WCHA.
“It was really fun to be on the bench watching these guys in the last ten minutes,” Eaves said. “We got a chance to practice what we’re going to need to do down the stretch.”