"It stings right now," Badger captain and junior forward Adam Burish said. "It's a big rivalry with Minnesota and [we were] 20 minutes from having a great weekend … We had the opportunity to sweep a great team and we just fell short."
Senior forward Barry Tallackson tallied the game-winner with only 42 seconds left, sweeping in from the side and slipping the puck in between the legs of UW goaltender Bernd Bruckler. Junior forward Andy Sertich contributed an empty net goal seconds later to cement the victory, ending a poor run that had seen the Gophers (20-11-0, 13-9-0 Western Collegiate Hockey Association) lose four of their last five.
"It's a good team to be able to fight back and get a quality win, and I'm hoping this can get us going again," UM head coach Don Lucia said.
The visitors rebounded in convincing fashion from a subpar Friday night, dominating the usually stout Badger penalty killers and becoming only the third team to post five goals against the cardinal and white this season. It was only the second time this year Wisconsin (20-7-1, 15-5-0) surrendered a lead in the third period, the first also coming against the rival Minnesotans.
"We weren't ready in that final period, and that's the difference between being a good team and a great team," Badger defenseman Tom Gilbert said.
Though usually dependable for a late score, the UW offense was shutout by Gopher netminder Kellen Briggs, who relieved seldom used backup Justin Johnson after the Badgers went up 3-2 midway through the second.
UW head coach Mike Eaves took a conciliatory approach to the loss: "It was a really big weekend, one we haven't had in awhile. We're going to go back and learn from that and we'll be a better team."
Sophomore forward Ryan Potulny tied the game at 3-3 when Bruckler was unable to control the puck in front of the crease, allowing the Gophers' scoring phenom to make a steal and launch a quick backhander into the net. The score was Potulny's 22nd of the year and the first even-strength goal surrendered by UW's All-American netminder since New Year's Day.
"We scored three minutes in to get the tie, then it was kind of just wait and see who was going to be able to capitalize, and fortunately we did," Lucia said.
Burish led the vaunted power play line in putting the Badgers ahead, 3-2, midway through the second. The captain deflected Gilbert's incoming wrist shot past Johnson, who was pulled for Briggs shortly thereafter.
Though the Gophers trailed entering the second they utilized another early Wisconsin penalty to put themselves back in the game. Junior forward Tyler Hirsch converted for the Gophers their second power play in three attempts, recovering a loose puck and lifting it top shelf for the tying score.
Though the first period had overwhelmingly been the Gophers' forte (they have outscored opponents 33-12), Wisconsin managed to gain a 2-1 edge by the intermission. The go-ahead score came from sophomore forward Robbie Earl, who put his stick handling skills on display in maneuvering past UM sophomore defender Mike Vannelli and backhanding the puck over the line.
Sophomore forward Danny Irmen scored a power play goal at 3:07 to give the Gophers the initial lead, finishing off an impressive one-timer set up by defensive teammate junior Chris Harrington. Whatever momentum the visiting side gained, however, was quickly negated when Gilbert rifled in an equalizer from the point two minutes later.
Despite the bad blood between these historic enemies, however, Burish gave credit to Wisconsin's opponent: "Lets not say that we collapsed and we beat ourselves. [Minnesota] is a great team."
Though the game was lost, Saturday night was not without its positives. Despite only splitting the weekend series, a 3-2 loss by Minnesota-Duluth to Michigan Tech means that the Badgers clinch home ice advantage for the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
Their quest for the regular season championship was dealt a blow, however, with Colorado College opening a four-point edge for first place and Denver leapfrogging into second place with wins Saturday.
Wisconsin will get the chance to remedy this setback next weekend, however, when they pay a visit to the Pioneers.
"That's the beauty of our schedule, we don't have time to feel bad for ourselves," Eaves said. "We can take those lessons that we can pick out, especially from this third period … and apply them to the next time we play."