Wisconsin sweeps Minnesota in tight series

Josh Linehan

The older guys knew.
The looks on the faces of the younger members of the Minnesota men’s hockey team said at least a moral victory had been achieved by once again skating to two close losses against Wisconsin.
But the looks on the faces of Gophers senior captain Nate Miller and junior assistant captain Dylan Mills after Saturday’s 5-4 loss to the top-ranked Badgers said otherwise.
Sure, Wisconsin is the unanimous No. 1 team in the country. Yes, Minnesota was forced to skate in front of a freshman walk-on making his first collegiate start in goal.
But there are no moral victories at the end of February, and the frown on Miller’s face was painful supporting evidence.
“We kind of do it to ourselves,” Miller said, speaking of his team’s lackluster first period which spotted Wisconsin a 3-0 lead Saturday the Gophers could never overcome.
“We made a lot of mistakes in that first period, with two huge points on the line, and we couldn’t overcome them. We just came out flat.”
The dismal effort during the first Saturday baffled observers who watched Minnesota battle hard and take Wisconsin to the wire before losing 4-2 Friday, a figure inflated by Dustin Kuk’s empty-net goal.
The Friday win gave Wisconsin the MacNaughton Cup as WCHA champions. So you could excuse the Badgers if they were a bit sluggish the following evening.
But they were all business Saturday.
“I was surprised (Minnesota) didn’t come out with more jump,” Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer said. “They’ve got a young team, and maybe they were a little too uptight early. We played even more relaxed, and that helps us.”
The Gophers managed to unsettle the Badgers after desperation took over in the game’s last two periods. After winning the second period 2-1, Minnesota pulled within one goal on markers by Stuart Senden and Miller.
The Wisconsin defense refused to crack, however, and with some help from Gophers penalties, kept Minnesota from even threatening to get the equalizer in the last seven minutes.
“Give credit to Wisconsin’s defense. They did what they had to do,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “You don’t know how they’d play if they were down.
“We were the aggressors the last two periods, but you have to be when you’re behind. We had some guys playing with desperation, but we need more guys playing like that.”
Wisconsin’s machine-like efficiency was never more evident than while killing penalties against Minnesota’s vaunted power play.
The Badgers failed to execute Sauer’s game plan of avoiding penalties. They gave Minnesota eight chances with the extra man Saturday. And though the Gophers executed their usual active puck movement, they only managed one goal on the power play.
That was because the Badgers played the tightest four-man box Minnesota has faced all season. All told, Wisconsin defenders blocked 20 shots on the evening.
“They blocked a ton of shots. We moved the puck around like we usually do, but we just didn’t get the bounces,” Lucia said.
All of which overshadowed the debut of Minnesota freshman netminder Erik Young, who kept Minnesota in both games.
“Erik Young proved he can play in this league. He gave us a chance to win, and that’s all you can ask,” Miller said.
The same can be said for the Gophers as a team. Since Christmas, Minnesota has lost just one game by more than a single goal, excluding empty-netters.
Still, after two consecutive sloppy seasons, Minnesota is not looking for a chance to win. They need points to move up in the WCHA and improve slim NCAA chances — quickly.
The older guys know close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Just ask any team sitting at home in mid-March.

Josh Linehan covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]