Madison, WI – With their first chance to win the Big Ten regular season championship, the Gophers dropped the ball.
Despite an overall better effort Saturday night, the Minnesota Gophers (21-8-1 Overall (3-3 OT), 14-3-1-2 B1G) were beaten 3-1 by a rejuvinated-looking Wisconsin Badgers team (11-19-0 (1-0), 4-16). The loss means that the Gophers will have to wait at least one more weekend to attempt to claim the Big Ten regular season title.
Minnesota’s Mike Koster opened the scoring for the Gophers on Saturday. His first-period goal at 18:28 seemed like it would swing the momentum the Minnesota’s way heading into the locker room. However, former Gopher commit Cruz Lucius scored in the final minute of the frame to tie the game at 1-1 and firmly position the momentum back in Wisconsin’s favor.
After a flurry of chances on both ends of the ice, Wisconsin’s Daniel Laatsch gave the Badgers their first lead of the weekend with his tally at 10:17 of the second. Minnesota looked like it had tied it minutes later when Connor Kurth scored, but the goal was disallowed after a lengthy review because of too-many-men on the ice. Wisconsin’s Carson Bantle added the Badgers’ third goal of the game at 14:09 to put Bucky up 3-1, and goalie Kyle McClellan shut the door from there, stopping 14 third-period Gopher shots to secure the victory for UW.
The Gophers simply couldn’t get much going against McClellan, who was rock solid between the pipes all weekend long for Bucky after replacing Jared Moe midway through the second period on Friday. All in all, McClellan gave up two goals on 52 shots on the weekend, and should be in position to earn a Big Ten star of the week for his performance against the #1 team in the country.
Although the loss is a bad one for the Gophers, it’s not unprecedented – Wisconsin has at least one win against every team it has played four times this year (including surging Michigan), and with Penn State and Michigan State on the Badgers’ upcoming schedule, they have a chance to beat every Big Ten opponent at least once on the season.
On the Gopher side of the ledger, they remain stuck on 46 league points, but Michigan’s overtime win against MSU tonight means the Wolverines themselves bled a precious point away, inching the Gophers ever closer to the title. With four games left on their schedules, the evil ‘M’ (currently at 35 league points) can max out at 47, which means the Gophers are just two points away from clinching the league title outright. Because Minnesota won the regular season series against Michigan, the Gophers own the tiebreaker against the Wolverines, so the Maroon and Gold can clinch the #1 seed with just one additional point. Either one Gopher OT or shootout loss (or one Michigan non-regulation win) the rest of the way gives the Gophers that first round bye and at least a share of the title.
The middle of the Big Ten is tightly contested right now, with only five points separating second-place Michigan (35) from sixth-place Penn State (30). Ohio State, Michigan State, and Notre Dame are each tied for third with 31 points. Advantage to Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State, which each has two series remaining, while MSU and Notre Dame each have a bye weekend left and only have two more games in which to bolster their point total. With teams 2-4 hosting teams 5-7 in the best-of-three first round, home ice is still up for grabs for every team except Wisconsin.
Up next for the Gophers is a road series against Penn State. The Nittany Lions will be coming off a bye week, while the Gophers only played like it was an off week here against Wisconsin. The Friday / Saturday series is a 7PM Eastern puck drop in the opening game and a 5PM Eastern faceoff in the rubber match.