In what was probably its most highly anticipated series in years, No. 19 Wisconsin (11-5-0 Big Ten, 18-11-1 overall) came away with a key win and a heartbreaking loss in the Border Battle against No. 4 Minnesota (12-4-0, 21-9-2) for Big Ten supremacy.
The Badgers continued a season-long trend Friday, falling behind early thanks to a slow start. But just like they’ve done all season, Wisconsin came out guns blazing in the second, scoring three goals to take a two-goal advantage it wouldn’t relinquish.
Freshman phenom Trent Frederic continued his hot streak, knotting up the game three minutes into the second stanza. Then Itallian Stallion Aidan Cavallini lit the lamp again, his sixth goal during Big Ten play. Junior forward Ryan Wagner finished out the scoring, netting a power play goal with under a minute left in the period.
"They scored on the first shift of the game, and that's a really tough way to start against a top team. As the [first] period went on, I thought we settled in and the second period, I thought we played pretty well," head coach Tony Granato told UWBadgers.com.
Minnesota would fight back in the third, sending a barrage of shots at freshman goalie Jack Berry. Vinni Lettieri notched his second of the game, bringing the Golden Gophers within a goal with just over eight minutes to play.
Minnesota fired 18 shots at Berry over the final 20 minutes, but he stopped all except the one from Lettieri. He finished the night with a career-high 36 saves. Sophomore defenseman Peter Tischke blocked a whopping 11 shots for UW.
"We battled like crazy to keep it out of our net," Granato said. "That team is a heck of a team. They didn't stop, they kept coming and coming and with good goaltending and blocked shots and specialty teams, we were able to come up with a good road win."
The win gave UW three points in the Big Ten, tying them with Minnesota atop the conference, setting the stage for a massive battle Saturday night.
Minnesota prevailed in a wild back-and-forth game to reclaim its place at the top of the Big Ten. The Gophers again got off to a hot start, taking a 2-0 lead in the first. But yet again, the Badgers dominated the second period, scoring twice to tie it up.
Sophomore captain Luke Kunin scored his 20th of the season and junior defensemen Jake Linhart found twine with just 16 seconds left in the period to set up a final period showdown.
It was Minnesota captain Justin Kloos, who has been clutch for the Gophers all season, who netted the game-winning goal with five minutes left.
"I'm really proud of our guys this weekend, they were outstanding," Granato said. "We had our chances to tie it, we had our chances to win it. We fell down 2-0, we didn't quit and kept coming and coming, but they made the play in the third period that went in our net."
Sophomore Matt Jurusik got the start in net, stopping 27-of-30 shots and settling down after allowing two goals in the first.
The Badgers came within inches of tying it with under a minute left. A shot from senior forward Grant Besse was slowed down by Gopher goalie Eric Schierhorn before sliding toward the goal line. Lettieri got his stick to the puck and cleared it as it was just inches away from crossing the line and tying the game.
The loss puts the Badgers three points back of the Gophers in the Big Ten with four regular season games remaining. They have two tough tests left, with two games on the road against Penn State and then two at home against Ohio State. These final four games will be make or break for a Wisconsin team that is flirting with its first NCAA Tournament berth in two years.
ESPN college hockey analyst John Buccigross said the Badgers are currently “50/50” on making the tournament, but are “trending in right direction.”
Badgers are still 50/50 but trending in right direction. At Penn St this weekend. Then home for two vs Ohio St. 4 tough games/opp to move up https://t.co/wxUedxae2P— Bucci Mane (@Buccigross) February 26, 2017