For two periods Friday, it appeared the two-time defending national champions were putting it together. At the end of the evening, though, Minnesota was still left with two wins this season, settling for a 3-3 tie with host Wisconsin.
Trailing 3-1 after 40 minutes of hockey, Wisconsin (2-2-1 WCHA, 5-3-1 overall) tallied two goals in barely more than four minutes to start the third period, then held on for a point in the conference standings.
Minnesota (1-5-1, 2-6-1) outplayed the Badgers in the first period and flat-out dominated the action in the second, outshooting Wisconsin 16-4 in that period. Gopher sophomore wing Thomas Vanek notched two second period goals, giving the Gophers the two-goal lead at the 7:15 mark.
"It felt like it was our first game," freshman center Jake Dowell said. "We didn't know what we were doing in our defensive zone. Everybody I think was looking for somebody to step up and make a big play."
Wisconsin's struggles came to the point where coach Mike Eaves used his timeout at the 12:45 mark in the second period.
"It was a little bit of a desperation move," Eaves said. "I thought that if we didn't put some fingers in the dyke the dyke was going to come down on us. I felt that was a turning point. If we had continued to let that play out it could have been four or five, maybe."
Between periods, Eaves heard an unlikely source take control of the locker room.
"I heard young Dan Boeser first and foremost," Eaves said. "I heard all three of our captains speak, but initially and loudest I heard Mr. Boeser."
"That is probably as mad as I have been playing hockey in my life," said Boeser, a senior defenseman and captain. "The first two periods it was really disappointing to come out and play like that the way we have been playing. I just felt that something needed to be said and some of the other guys talk more than I do and I thought that if I were to say something and snap a little bit then guys would maybe get their butts in gear."
Boeser, one of just five seniors who took the ice for Wisconsin Friday night, stepped well out of character with the in-game speech.
"He talks, but I've never heard him really get mad," Dowell said. "It was a wakeup call."
"I stepped out of my box a little bit, and sometimes I have to do that," Boeser said.
The Badgers came out with a flurry in the third period. For an added spark, Eaves switched up his lines, putting sophomore right wing Ryan MacMurchy, the team's leading scorer, on a line with center Dowell and freshman left wing Robbie Earl. The line clicked from its opening shift, with Dowell setting up MacMurchy in front of the net. Gopher goalie Kellen Briggs made a nice save, sliding across the crease to thwart MacMurchy, but an attempted clearing pass ended up on Boeser's stick. Boeser skated from the high slot through the circle and shot the puck toward Briggs, gaining a fortuitous bounce off Minnesota junior wing Barry Tallackson's stick for the Badgers second goal, just 36 seconds into the frame.
The same line tied the game less than four minutes later. This time senior defenseman Andy Wozniewski kept the puck in the zone, shoveling it along the sideboards for MacMurchy, who made a great individual play, fending off Minnesota center Jerrid Reinholz and dekeing another Gopher, then skating to the front of the net and shelving the puck on Briggs.
"We needed to do something, we needed to jumpstart our team a little bit," Eaves said. "Sometimes when you are flat, when you don't have things going that is one of the things the coaches' manual tells you you should do is kind of mix things up and see if you can find combinations that will jumpstart you and we did, fortunately."
Penalties dominated the first period, with 11 minors leading to four Wisconsin power plays and three for the Gophers. Minnesota capitalized on one opportunity with the man advantage when senior wing Troy Riddle set up sophomore forward Tyler Hirsch in the slot for a wrist shot that beat Wisconsin goaltender Bernd Bruckler to make it 1-0.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, struggled mightily on the power play, rarely even setting up in the Gophers' zone. The Badgers took nine shots in the period, but had few quality scoring opportunities.
Wisconsin finally capitalized on the man-advantage in the second period, when Earl used a little creativity, bouncing the puck off Briggs from behind the net to make it 2-1.
"It's a little bit of luck, but it was there, so I just took it," Earl said.
Vanek notched the first of his two second period goals less than two minutes into the period, receiving the puck just inside the blue line, skating to the high slot and firing a shot past Bruckler's glove side.
After Wisconsin drew within 2-1, Bruckler was called for a holding penalty at the seven-minute mark. Just 12 seconds into the penalty, Vanek took a cross-ice pass from senior center Matt Koalska, skated into Wisconsin's zone to the top of the circle and handcuffed Bruckler with a slap shot to the near side that went over the Badger keeper's glove.
Vanek, who like Bruckler hails from Graz, Austria, had the best opportunity to break the tie in the overtime session. With 20 seconds left in the game, Vanek received the puck and skated into the the Badgers' zone. As on his second goal, Vanek wound up a slap shot from the circle, but this time Bruckler was true to the challenge, making a pad save to preserve the tie.
Score by period
Shots on goal by period
MN 1: Tyler Hirsch (2) from Troy Riddle (4) and Chris Harrington (3) at 10:15
MN 2: Thomas Vanek (5) from Garrett Smaagaard (5) and Jake Fleming (1) at 1:49
MN 3: Vanek (6) from Matt Koalska (5) and Andy Sertich (5) at 7:12
UW 2: Dan Boeser (2) unassisted at 0:36
UW 3: Ryan MacMurchy (6) from Andy Wozniewski (1) and Jake Dowell (6) at 4:18
MN: Kellen Briggs (65:00) 17
UW: Bernd Bruckler (65:00) 32