For every step Wisconsin (7-11-0, 1-9-0 Big Ten) has taken forward this season, it seems they’ve taken two steps back. The weekend series against No. 3 Minnesota (15-5-0 10-2-0) was no exception, with the Golden Gophers dismantling the Badgers one week after UW’s promising series-split against Michigan.
Wisconsin had little to no answer for the Gophers, who coasted to a 7-1 victory Friday night.
It only took four minutes for the Badgers to commit the first of many fatal miscues in their own zone. Jack Horbach and Daniel Laatsch’s collision sent the latter flying into goalie Jared Moe, whose helmet got knocked off in the process. Minnesota took swift advantage of the calamity, as Logan Cooley corralled the puck on the wing and backhanded it into the dislodged net.
The Gophers doubled their lead several minutes later at 7:23 in the first period. Jaxon Nelson capitalized on shotty defense by the Badgers, who seemed to be implementing their own social distancing mandate by leaving the forward all alone. Nelson made them pay, slapping a shot off the bottom of the crossbar to put Minnesota up, 2-0.
Charlie Stramel gave the Badgers some semblance of life with 10:33 left in the opening frame. With Wisconsin on a power play, Cruz Lucius forced a turnover in the offensive zone and uncorked a shot on goal. Though his wrister was blocked, the forward collected his rebound and dished the puck to Stramel, who hammered it home from a knee to pull Wisconsin within one, 2-1.
The good vibes emanating from the Badgers bench dissipated soon after Minnesota lit the lamp two more times before the closing horn of the first period sounded.
Minnesota’s Bryce Brodzinski returned the favor with a power-play goal of his own at 18:02. Less than 30 seconds later, Cooley netted his second score of the game on a breakaway that resulted from a Wisconsin miss at the other end.
The Gophers continued their scoring barrage in the second period. Rhett Pitlick’s shot from outside the left circle at 4:00 careened off the right post and into the back of the net, extending Minnesota’s commanding lead, 5-1.
Wisconsin coach Tony Granato’s ensuing decision to bring in Kyle McClellan for Moe — who recorded just 10 saves on 15 shots — brought the goaltender’s disastrous night to a premature end.
McClellan didn’t fare much better in his relief. With 10:48 left in the second, Minnesota’s Ryan Chesley buried a one-timer from the slot to add on to the blowout.
A final score by Aaron Huglen capped off the Gophers’ 7-1 victory. Seconds after McClellan stopped multiple shots from close range, Huglen stole the puck from Stramel and snuck it through the goalie’s five-hole.
“What's done is done,” Moe said after his poor performance. “It sucks and it's not the result anyone wanted. Even their guys, I'm sure, were hoping for a little bit more of a battle.”
Though Saturday night bore a far more even battle, the Badgers were unable to overcome a questionable major penalty and dropped the contest 6-4 – their 16th straight Big Ten regular-season road game loss.
UW’s Corson Ceulemans opened the scoring at 11:37 in the opening period. With Wisconsin on a 5-on-3 power play thanks to multiple penalties assessed to the Gophers, Mathieu De St. Phalle and Ceulemans traded the puck back and forth until the latter slapped it home for a one-timer.
Brock Caufield added to the Badgers' lead less than three minutes later. Moments after Mike Vorlicky’s shot from the blue line deflected off teammate Liam Malmquist in front of the net, Caufield corralled the loose puck and fired it past goaltender Justen Close.
However, it quickly went south for the Badgers after running out to a 2-0 lead.
With 4:06 left in the first, Stramel and Minnesota’s Brock Faber exchanged pushes and shoves after the whistle had blown. Both were sent to the penalty box, though Stramel was issued a harsher five minute major for head contact. Upon review, it looked as though Faber pulled the freshman’s jersey, thus inducing the headbutt.
“It's not a major, it's not a penalty,” Granato said. “But they decided to make a call. Sometimes referees see things that other people don't.
“There's not one person that could justify saying that that is a headbutt,” Granato continued. “We've got a star player playing in his home state in front of lots of scouts and he's kicked out of the game because the guy pulls his jersey. Did that change the momentum of the game? Absolutely.”
Consecutive Minnesota goals just 29 seconds apart reinvigorated the lifeless 3M Arena at Mariucci and evened the score at two apiece. Pitlick first got the Gophers on the board at 17:37 in the period with a four-on-four goal. Jimmy Snuggerud followed close behind with a power-play score from the left side.
In the closing seconds of the opening frame, Minnesota netted the final goal of the period to claim their first lead of the night, 3-2. Luke Mittelstadt’s shot from the left circle crossed the goal line with a meager 0.1 seconds to spare.
The Gophers carried their newfound momentum into the opening minutes of the second period. Goals by Mason Nevers, Connor Kurth and Cooley provided Minnesota with a four-goal cushion and capped off their run of six unanswered goals in less than six minutes.
Wisconsin wouldn’t go down without a fight, tallying two goals in the third period to pull within two.
UW’s Luke LaMaster won a laborious puck battle behind the net and coasted the puck along the boards to Lucius, who fed Malmquist as he sped into the offensive zone. The sophomore did the rest, finishing the breakaway with a backhand score — his first of the season — at 3:15.
Anthony Kehrer brought the Badgers one goal closer with 13:21 left in the third. Lucius’ pass through the zone navigated through traffic en route to finding the stick of Kehrer, who buried the putaway for his first goal of the year.
Wisconsin’s late game heroics were not enough to erase the insurmountable deficit, with Minnesota hanging on for the 6-4 win.
Following three consecutive losses to Big Ten opponents, the Badgers will look to reclaim some of the momentum from their prior five-game win streak when they take on Lake Superior State in the annual Kwik Trip Holiday Face-Off. Puck drop is slated for 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 28.