The Wisconsin Badgers (11-19-0, 4-16-0 Big Ten) became the modern-day David in their second go around versus No. 1 Minnesota, upsetting the Goliath Golden Gophers (21-8-1, 15-4-1) in a series-split.
Wisconsin's first-ever hockey stripe-out turned into an all too familiar blowout Friday night at the Kohl Center. The Badgers failed to capitalize on early opportunities against the Gophers, who scored the first four goals of the night en route to claiming a 4-1 victory.
On the heels of surrendering five goals in last weekend’s 7-4 loss to Michigan, Wisconsin goaltender Jared Moe ceded three goals on Minnesota’s first seven shots before being pulled for the second consecutive game.
“He's an elite goalie,” Badgers coach Tony Granato said of Moe. “But he's got to regain his focus and be ready for next time he gets a call.”
Despite entering play as the clear underdog, the Badgers looked to be the better team on the ice for much of the opening frame. They consistently prevailed in battles along the boards and races to the puck, rarely allowing the Gophers to clear it out of their zone. After a strong shift in which Wisconsin fired off 12 straight shots, the alternating sea of red and white fans present erupted in thunderous applause.
As has been the case for much of the season, however, Wisconsin couldn’t get out of their own way — quite literally. Moments after Mathieu De St. Phalle’s shot deflected off a teammate attempting to establish net front presence, Minnesota’s Logan Cooley snuck the puck under Moe’s pad on the other end at 15:57.
Once the closing horn of the first period sounded, the Badgers skated off the ice with an astounding 21-3 shots on goal advantage — though trailed in the contest, 1-0.
“You feel like territorially and puck-possession-wise the first period was one of our best periods of the year,” Granato said. “But we didn’t score.”
It was only a matter of time before the Gophers gained their footing. Jimmy Snuggerud and Bryce Brodzinski netted goals at 1:04 and 8:35 in the second period, respectively, to give the Gophers a comfortable 3-0 lead. The latter score — a one-timer from the high-slot — prompted Granato to make a change in net, opting for Kyle McClellan in favor of Moe.
The Badgers mustered a final whimper in the closing frame to prevent a shutout. On the first shift following Brodzinski’s second goal of the game, University of Wisconsin forward Brock Caufield one-timed Sam Stange’s feed for his career-high 10th goal to pull the Badgers within three, 4-1.
McClellan played well in relief of Moe, recording 17 saves in the third period and keeping Wisconsin in contention.
“We got a little sloppy there as we tried to open the game up and made some decisions with the puck that were really poor against some really good players,” Granato said. “[McClellan] came up big for us to keep it [close].”
Granato chose to ride the hot hand into Saturday’s contest, giving McClellan the starting nod in just his ninth contest playing at Wisconsin. The move soon paid immense dividends, with the junior’s strong play in net propelling the Badgers to a 3-1 upset victory over the Gophers.
“We watched him a lot before he came here this year,” Granato said of McClellan, who transferred from Mercyhurst University this past offseason. “The one thing we kept being so excited about is how calm he is in the net.”
The moment never seemed too big for McClellan, despite the season-high 11,075 fans in attendance — around 40 of whom were members of Wisconsin’s 1973 and 1983 NCAA championship teams. He finished the night with 32 saves, 14 of which came in the third period.
Additionally, McClellan’s teammates displayed their own level headedness throughout the contest.
At 18:28 in the opening frame, Minnesota’s Mike Koster wristed a shot from the point that deflected off a Wisconsin blueliner and into the back of the net. Instead of dwelling on the mistake, the Badgers immediately reclaimed the momentum, netting an equalizer with 21 seconds left in the period. Mathieu De St. Phalle snatched the puck out of the air and threaded it to Cruz Lucius, who corralled the feed in front of the crease and backhanded it home to even the score at one.
The Badgers’ mental fortitude was tested once again near the halfway mark of the second period.
Forward Dominick Mersch’s shot snuck past Minnesota goaltender Justen Close and sat on the goal line. As several Badgers emphatically raised their hands to celebrate the apparent score, Minnesota’s Bryce Brodzinski rushed the active puck down the ice. McClellan made a masterful save on the breakaway shot, and normal play ensued.
Less than a minute later, Daniel Laatsch buried his first goal of the season — one that couldn’t be disputed — to give Wisconsin their first lead of the night, 2-1.
“I thought it was going to be one of those weekends where we’re having a tough time scoring goals and we score two of them [but] only get credit for one,” Granato quipped. “It was an exciting two minutes of hockey and fortunately for us we were able to stay with it.”
Carson Bantle supplied the game’s killshot — a wound-up slap shot from the short side faceoff circle – at 14:09 in the second period. After hugging his teammates in celebration, the junior forward looked up to the crowd seemingly searching for members of the championship teams.
“Once you play at Wisco, it’s your family whenever you leave here,” Bantle said. “Every shift we wanted to play for the alumni and play for one another, too.”
Minnesota’s goal with 8:13 left in the second period was called back for too many men on the ice, squandering any hopes of a Gophers comeback.
Wisconsin’s 3-1 victory — albeit unexpected — is not unprecedented. The Badgers are 4-2-0 in their last six faceoffs against the Gophers when they’ve bore the No. 1 ranking, with their last victory coming on Jan. 9, 2021.
“[Playing the] No. 1 ranked team, obviously it’s a little intimidating but I think we came together and proved that we’re just as good,” McClellan said. “We can beat them any night.”
The Badgers will look to carry their newfound momentum into their next series when they host the Michigan State Spartans. Puck drop is slated for 8 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 17 and 7 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 18.