ST. PAUL, Minn. — While the Gophers celebrated their long-awaited Final Five win over the Badgers, and as the two teams formed their lines for post-game handshakes, there met a small gathering in front of the Wisconsin net. Captain Andrew Joudrey, goaltender Brian Elliott, and assistant captains Jake Dowell and Jeff Likens had a brief discussion and embraced each other before entering the line.
The four seniors were coming to a very sad, very real, and for them, a very premature realization: Their defense of that national title has come to a close.
No. 2 Minnesota exorcised its recent demons at the Xcel Energy Center and got the better of its biggest rival with a 4-2 win over No. 20 Wisconsin, which saw its chances at a conference championship slip away — and with them, an invitation to the NCAA tournament.
"I'm just really proud of our guys," U of M coach Don Lucia said. "Wisconsin's obviously a very good team, good defensively, and they battled right here at the end because they want to defend their title."
Sophomore center Blake Wheeler was the hero for the Gophers, scoring a hat trick and notching the game-winner that capped a wild series of events at the end of the second period.
With the game tied at two, Dowell was whistled for hooking with 8.6 seconds left in the second period, and it looked like Minnesota would have the man advantage heading into the decisive third period. But Wheeler chose not to wait that long, and when defenseman Alex Goligoski took a shot from the point off Kyle Okposo's faceoff win, Wheeler redirected the puck past a sweeping Elliott with 4.0 seconds left in the period.
"It's obviously frustrating," Dowell said. "I'm helpless in the box. Can't do anything about it now; just is what it is."
After going down 1-0 on Wheeler's first goal, the Badgers took a 2-1 lead past the halfway point of the second period. Defenseman Davis Drewiske bounced in his fourth of the year off Gopher Kyle Johnson's skate, and Dowell got his 18th of the season when he beat U of M goalie Kellen Briggs with a laser shot on an odd-man rush.
But down 3-2 late, the Gophers won key faceoffs and didn't allow Wisconsin any good looks at a potential game-tying goal, before Wheeler sealed the deal with an empty-netter in the closing seconds.
"It was a back-and-forth game — they had the momentum at times; we had the momentum at times," Likens said. "Just pucks bounced, they got good bounces, they got pucks to the net and did a good job."
The Gophers broke a five-game losing streak at the pro arena, including a four-game slide in WCHA Final Five competition that spanned the last two seasons.
Third-place game: Wisconsin 4, St. Cloud State 3 (OT)
Even if the Frozen Four wasn't the setting, and even if that gold NCAA trophy wasn't involved, the Badger seniors were still able to taste ending their careers with a win.
No. 4 St. Cloud State had a 3-1 lead in the third-place game Saturday afternoon, but Wisconsin (19-18-4) refused to give up and got a Ben Street goal with 10 seconds left in the overtime period to win 4-3, end the season over .500 and give the seniors a send-off gift.
"I think that the character of our team showed tonight, with the fight that we had," senior forward Andy Brandt said. "No one quit. No one gave up. That was our motto going into tonight, that we were going to fight to be above .500. The character of the team and the character of the seniors carried that through."
Brandt scored a power-play goal late in the second period to bring UW within one, and when Joudrey's shot grazed off Jack Skille's hip and in for Skille's eighth of the year, the game went into overtime.
That wasn't enough for the Badgers. With 14.3 seconds left in OT, UW head coach Mike Eaves called a timeout and drew up a play for Wisconsin's top line. Then, defenseman Kyle Klubertanz's shot went off Joudrey and right to Street. The sophomore center backhanded his 10th goal of the year past SCSU goalie and WCHA first-teamer Bobby Goepfert to give the Badgers a satisfying end to their season.
"A lot of it was pride; that's a big part of it for us," Street said of the underclassmen's motivations. "To be over .500 and have the seniors have every season over .500 is a thing they can be proud of too."
The plan was for Elliott to start the game, then come out after the first whistle and "pass the torch" to sophomore Shane Connelly. But that went awry when the first whistle was brought on by Andreas Nodl's 18th goal of the year for St. Cloud State, just 29 seconds in.
So instead of being pulled right then, Elliott made a glove save on the next exchange and then came out. Connelly helped put a good spin on a lousy start to the goaltending situation by making 24 saves on 26 Husky shots in the win.
"It was a shame that Brian had to go out [like that]; he's done so much for everything," Connelly continued. "But it was definitely exciting for me to get in there and really play in a big-time game here at the Final Five, against a great team like St. Cloud, so I was really excited at the chance."