Madison, WI – The old adage goes ‘split on the road, sweep at home’.
Through two weekends of Big Ten hockey, the Gophers have managed to do one point better.
After sweeping Notre Dame in the Big Ten opener last weekend, the Minnesota Gophers (6-4-0 Overall, 3-0-0-1 Big Ten) managed to escape from the Kohl Center with four out of six league points, and held serve at the top of the league standings. Minnesota’s 10 points is one ahead of both Michigan and Ohio State in the early going.
Friday’s contest saw the long-anticipated matchup between Gopher goalie Jack LaFontaine and former Gopher goalie Jared Moe. Moe transferred to Wisconsin days after LaFontaine announced that he’d be back for another year in the Maroon and Gold, and it was Moe starting the Friday matchup between the pipes wearing Wisconsin’s red jersey.
The two teams played a fast game Friday night, with lots of up-and-down action. Minnesota and Wisconsin were held scoreless in the first, but the Gophers built a 2-0 lead midway through the 2nd with goals by Sammy Walker and Blake McLaughlin. Wisconsin came storming back, scoring on the power play just over a minute after McLaughlin’s goal, and then again 17 seconds later to knot it up at 2-2.
Minnesota took a lead later in the 2nd on one of the more bizarre goals anyone will ever see. Minnesota took a delayed penalty, and Wisconsin pulled Moe for an extra attacker on the play. The Wisconsin forward curled out of the offensive right-wing corner and fired a pass back to the point – and between the Badger defenders. The puck slid all the way down the ice and into the net, and the Gophers were credited with a goal to go up 3-2.
Wisconsin had all the momentum before the own-goal, but the play seemed to suck some of the life out of the building. However, the Badgers made up for the mistake, with Brock Caufield scoring early in the 3rd to tie the game at 3-3. Minnesota earned a late power play chance, but could not convert, and Caufield again scored in the 3×3 overtime to win the extra point for the Badgers.
Saturday’s game felt like a different level of focus for the Gophers, who came out firing and never looked in jeopardy. Minnesota took a 3-0 lead in the first period with goals from Matthew Knies, Aaron Huglen, and Jaxon Nelson.
The game turned on a couple potential injuries: Jack LaFontaine got tangled up with a Badger forward and went down late in the first, clutching his leg in agony. Justen Close came in for the final minute of the period and stopped three shots to keep the Gophers ahead 3-0. LaFontaine was able to return in the 2nd, and generally controlled the crease for the rest of the game.
The second potential injury came just after Wisconsin scored to draw within two goals at 3-1. Sammy Walker took a cross-ice pass from Blake McLaughlin and put it past UW goalie Cameron Rowe just 16 seconds after the Badgers had scored to put Minnesota back up three at 4-1. Walker crashed hard into the net and looked woozy heading back to the bench after the play, but the senior captain was able to return later, as well.
Minnesota masterfully put away the rest of the game, controlling the flow of play and generally keeping shots to the outside. Mike Koster was back in the lineup this weekend after missing the Notre Dame series with an injury, and his presence was definitely felt on the blue line, especially after Matt Staudacher took a 5-minute major and game misconduct in the second period.
Up next for the Gophers is a home series against Ohio State. The Buckeyes were picked to finish toward the bottom of the league this year by the coaches, but have started strong and are 3-1 in league play thus far.
Chaz Lucius and Grant Cruikshank were both injured and unavailable this weekend. Lucius was considered week-to-week during the Notre Dame series.
The league may review the Staudacher hit for additional discipline. If they do, expect to see a healthy dose of Carl Fish (who has looked pretty good thus far) next Friday night.