Gophers sweep way into tie for first

Chris Lempesis

MADISON, Wis. ” While there were more than a few signs that the balance of power in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association might be shifting about 270 miles west of here this weekend, perhaps the biggest came late in the third period Saturday.

With Minnesota’s men’s hockey team clinging to a 2-1 lead over Wisconsin, star freshman forward Phil Kessel ” a native of Madison ” fired a puck by freshman Wisconsin goaltender Shane Connelly to give the Gophers a 3-1 lead.

It wasn’t so much the goal as it was Kessel’s celebration ” skating back towards the bench with his hand to his ear while the crowd rained boos upon him as it had done all weekend ” that showed more than anything that it’s Minnesota, not Wisconsin, that now has championship swagger and could be the team to beat.

The goal, Kessel’s first point of any kind against Wisconsin, also sealed a 3-1 win for the Gophers on Saturday to give them a two-game sweep over the Badgers. Fourth-ranked Minnesota (18-6-4, 13-5-2 WCHA) won 5-4 Friday.

The Gophers now are in a three-way tie for first in the conference with second-ranked Wisconsin (18-6-2, 13-5-2 WCHA) and No. 14 Denver. The Gophers have won 11 of their past 12 games.

Minnesota looked like a different team than the squad Wisconsin swept at Mariucci Arena in early December.

“After last time we played these guys, we kind of wanted to use this as a measuring stick,” junior goalie Kellen Briggs said. “You know, where we are today compared to back then. We just wanted to see if we improved, and I think we have.”

Briggs seems correct, as Kessel’s celebration was not the only sign that Minnesota is a different, and better, team now. The first period Saturday was a perfect example.

Sluggish coming out of the gate, the Gophers were outshot 14-3 by the Badgers. Subpar first periods severely hurt Minnesota the first time the teams met ” in fact, it never fully seemed to recover in either loss. But the Gophers were not mentally fazed this time around. They were down just 1-0 after the first, mainly because of strong play from Briggs and knew they still were very much alive.

“That’s what we said in the locker room: “You know, we’re going to have to take their best punch early,’ ” sophomore forward Ben Gordon said. “And we did that. We came out and we started hitting them back a bit.”

Minnesota certainly did, as it came out stronger in all facets in the second.

Defensively it began to take away solid scoring chances, holding the

Badgers to just seven shots in the period. Junior forward Ryan Potulny scored the equalizer in the second, and Gordon put the Gophers ahead midway through the third.

And if Gordon’s goal spelled it out that Minnesota was better than before, Kessel’s goal and the ensuing celebration provided the punctuation.

Kessel skated into Wisconsin’s zone one-on-one with a defender and let loose a shot from the circle that went past Connelly, a play he might not have been able to make the first time the teams met.

As for Kessel’s gesture, the idea for which he said “just popped in my head … it was a little, you know, “I can’t hear you,’ ” that drew mixed results.

Gordon said he “absolutely loved it,” and coach Don Lucia said he would have preferred Kessel didn’t do it, but said he understood given all the grief he took, and Wisconsin senior forward and team captain Adam Burish was downright angry.

“If we were at a different level, a different league, somebody might have taken it into their own hands after doing something like that,” Burish said. “He’s a great player. I’m not going to question that. But after seeing something like that, you want to question the kid’s character a little bit and the class he has after he scores. But, he scored; he can do what he wants.”

Minnesota was basically able to do anything it wanted as a team throughout the first two periods Friday. This was another area in which the team showed just how far it has come since early December as the Gophers came out intense and unintimidated.

That paid off for Minnesota offensively, as it scored all five of its goals ” three of which came from junior forward Danny Irmen in recording his second career hat trick ” in the first two periods, including a three-goal outburst in the second period to take a 5-1 lead heading into second intermission.

The Gophers then had to show improved resolve early in the final frame as the Badgers pulled themselves back in the game by lighting the lamp three times in a span of 2:39. Minnesota proved it had the intestinal fortitude, though, holding the home team off ” especially during the final 1:12, while Wisconsin had the extra attacker ” to preserve the win.

“We just came out and, mentally, we didn’t have the intensity that we had to have,” Lucia said Friday of the first six minutes of the third.

“You go from “Game should be over’ to “game on.’ But our guys, to their credit, battled the last 12, 13 minutes and kept them off the board.”

“Battled” is a fitting word to describe Minnesota’s performance this weekend as the Gophers pulled out a pair of hard-fought victories.

But, perhaps, surpassing is an even better one.

“I think we learned some valuable lessons that weekend (in December) about giving yourself a chance to win,” Lucia said on Saturday. “We just made some real errors that weekend that played into their hands, and we didn’t give ourselves a chance. But Wisconsin’s an outstanding team and they’re going to bounce back. But this was a big weekend for the Gophers.”