With the odds stacked against them, the Wisconsin men’s hockey team still found a path to victory Thursday night against Minnesota, beating the No. 1 team in the country 2-1.
The No. 12-ranked Badgers (15-8-2 overall, 6-4-1-0 Big Ten) came into Thursday’s matchup with a record of 1-4-1 in their last six home games against the Gophers (19-3-5, 8-1-2-0), who also carried a 14-game unbeaten streak into the game. After heading into the third period with a 1-1 tie, the Badgers scraped out just three shots in the final period, but defenseman Jake McCabe’s wrister found twine, escorting his team in its fight against the grain to upset the top-ranked team in the country.
Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves thought his team had “classroom legs” for the first two periods and in the third the Badgers were outplayed and outshot by a margin of 10-3, yet they were the ones who came out on top.
“We have played better here and lost,” Eaves said. “It’s funny how the game goes sometimes, and tonight we didn’t play very well and found a way to win…Good teams find a way to win on nights that they don’t play well.”
As time ticked away in the third period with Minnesota in the midst of an offensive onslaught, Wisconsin freshman forward Jedd Soleway went to work in the offensive zone on one of the Badgers’ few quality offensive zone possessions in the period. After keeping possession traveling behind the net and then through the slot, Soleway shoved the puck off to McCabe at the right endline. McCabe stick-handled his way into the right circle and whizzed a wrister, beating Minnesota goaltender Adam Wilcox (17 saves) high on the near side with 6:13 to play and sending the 8,908 in attendance into a frenzy.
“He’s best when he’s moving his feet down low, and that’s what it really comes down to is he’s fending off the defender and moving his feet the whole way through,” McCabe said of Soleway’s play to get him the puck. “I don’t even know why I was up there [in the offensive zone] to begin with. But it started with Jedd and he found me on the back…so it’s a big time play for a freshman.”
Although McCabe was credited with what was the game-winning goal on the second shot of the period, the player of the game was undoubtedly Wisconsin goaltender Joel Rumpel who came up with 31 saves in the win, allowing just one goal at the 17:20 mark of the first period.
Of Rumpel’s multitude of saves, his stonewall on Minnesota’s Kyle Rau only a minute and a half into the third period was one of his biggest stops of the night and kept the score knotted at one. Rau broke down the slot from the blue line after getting a feed from in front of Wisconsin’s bench and tried to stuff the puck five-hole on Rumpel who came up with just enough of the puck for the save.
“I knew he had to go glove side on me. I just read the play, had good speed moving back and I guess I just touched it with my stick and barely caught it with my pad. It was a good move by him and I’m fortunate that it just stayed under my pad,” Rumpel said.
Then in the game’s last minute with Wilcox pulled, Rumpel stood strong with a scrum in front of the net, holding back the Gophers’ surge and maintaining the 2-1 lead.
That build-up of players in front of Rumpel resulted in a penalty to Wisconsin’s Frankie Simonelli, giving the Gophers a chance on the power play with their goaltender pulled.
Wisconsin killed off Minnesota’s six-on-four opportunity in the game’s final 27 seconds to secure its first win over a number one-ranked team since beating the Gophers 3-1 Nov. 11, 2011.
Still, the Badgers have plenty of room for improvement heading into the series finale Friday night at 8 p.m.
“Coach [Eaves] gave us a little pep talk, if you want to call it that, after the second [period]. We weren’t playing well all night,” McCabe said of the Badgers performance which saw them get outshot heavily 32-19. “With the veteran team like we have, we’ve been there before multiple times, not just this year but in the past couple of years. We have learned how to finish games and you got to stay…patiently persistent.
“It wasn’t pretty but when you get the ‘W’ at the end that’s all that matters.”