Men's Hockey: Blown leads ruin potentially huge weekend

The Gophers will be in town again for what promises to be an exciting series between the two rivals. 

The Gophers will be in town again for what promises to be an exciting series between the two rivals. 

Image By: Betsy Osterberger

This season, Wisconsin men’s hockey has been defined by seconds.

Friday night versus the Minnesota Gophers (3-2-3 Big Ten, 12-9-3 overall), the Badgers (0-6-4 Big Ten, 2-16-4 overall) sat comfortably on a 3-1 lead midway through the second period. 100 seconds later, Minnesota was ahead by a two-goal margin, scoring a whopping four goals in 1:40 and three in just 39 seconds.

Saturday night, Wisconsin found itself with the lead again, this time in the third period with 1:13 left to play. With two seconds left in regulation and an extra attacker on the ice, the Gophers capitalized on a tired Badger defense and sent the game to overtime.

How does Wisconsin reconcile losing leads (and, thus, wins) to a sequence of bad seconds? It can’t seem to, which troubles both the coaches and players.

“If we could take that minute and 40 seconds back, it would probably be a different outcome,” head coach Mike Eaves said after Friday’s 7-5 loss. “It was just like somebody turned the lights out for a minute and 40 seconds and we had no clue what our brain was doing.”

The Badgers’ silver lining in a wild, back-and-forth series came Saturday when they defeated the Gophers in a shootout. Two freshman forwards scored their first career goals in the 4-4 tie, including Ryan Wagner, who tipped in a shot by freshman defenseman Jake Linhart just nine seconds into the game.

The other goal came from Cameron Hughes at the end of the third period on a Wisconsin power play. Hughes’ wrister ignited the Kohl Center crowd and gave the Badgers their first lead since the first period.

“At the beginning of the year, a lot of us were kind of feeling our way out,” Hughes said of the freshman class. “After Christmas, guys [have been] starting to play better … I think a lot of the guys are happy with their play lately.”

After Minnesota forced overtime, which went by scoreless, Wisconsin and Minnesota traded two goals apiece until redshirt freshman forward Corbin McGuire scored on a highlight-reel backhand shot in the seventh round to give the Badgers the extra Big Ten standings point.

“We’re going to enjoy this one, and that’s a much-needed point there in the shootout, especially against a good team like Minnesota,” McGuire said. “Those are the points we’re going to need to have.”

Another notable positive for UW in Saturday’s tilt was its penalty kill. The Badgers allowed only one goal during a five-minute major to college hockey’s best power play team and successfully killed off a 5-on-3 in the same stretch.

Whereas Saturday offered a lifeline to the struggling Badgers, Friday highlighted the areas in which they are still a work in progress. Wisconsin opened with energy on a tip-in goal by senior forward Joseph LaBate, but Minnesota responded with a goal from senior forward Seth Ambroz, who totaled four goals against UW in the series.

“I told him in the second period to quit scoring on me, but it turns out that didn’t work out very well,” senior goaltender Joel Rumpel said of Ambroz, who scored the tying goal in the third period of Saturday’s game to force overtime.

Goals from freshman and sophomore forwards Matt Ustaski and Grant Besse gave Wisconsin a 3-1 lead, but four goals in 100 seconds by Minnesota seemed to knock the life out of the Badgers.

When freshman defenseman Jack Dougherty scored his first career goal with 52 seconds left in the second, it looked like the Badgers had a shot at a comeback. But midway through the third period, it only took another two goals and 36 seconds to crush UW’s hopes for good.

The Badgers added another goal from sophomore forward Jedd Soleway, but ended up losing by two goals.

There were more questions than answers after a series that could have been the defining moment of Wisconsin’s season, but the Badgers are choosing to look forward.

“It seems, right now, on our path to success, we’re really hitting some bumpy roads,” Eaves said. “We need to use this as a lilypad to keep growing.”

UW is back in action next weekend in University Park, Pennsylvania, versus Penn State at 5:30 p.m. Friday and 1:00 p.m. Saturday.

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