Scoring just two goals and seven points in the 12 games leading up to the IIHF World Junior Championships, Wisconsin freshman Kyle Turris scored eight points for Team Canada in the Czech Republic, helping lead the Canadians to the gold medal.
Returning to the Kohl Center for the first time since his European vacation, Turris continued to be a leader- this time taking his Badgers to their biggest win of the season.
Turris' perfect pass set up the Badgers' first goal and his breakaway tally was the winning goal, as No.16 Wisconsin held on to edge No.17 Minnesota, 3-1, Friday night.
With the two teams tied in the PairWise Rankings and in a tie for fifth in the WCHA standings entering the weekend, both teams were looking to get a jump towards making a push for the NCAA tournament.
Thanks to Turris, the Badgers struck first.
With Wisconsin (11-10-4, 7-8-2 WCHA) already up a goal on freshman Ryan McDonagh's fifth-goal of the season, on an needle-threading pass from the corner by Turris ironically enough, it was Turris turn to register the tally.
Receiving a perfect pass as he broke free from the defense, Turris had nothing but clear ice between him and Minnesota goalie Alex Kangas with defenseman Cade Fairchild trailing close behind.
Not willing to go down without a fight, Kangas attempted to poke check the puck away from Turris with his stick as the freshman closed in and looked to fire glove side.
Seeing the other end of the net wide open, Turris, with Fairchild draped over his shoulder and dragging him to ice, was somehow able to pull the puck back and flick it into the unguarded part of the net to give the Badgers a highlight-reel goal and a 2-0 lead.
With his two points, Turris has seven points and four goals in five games since returning from his goal-medal performance.
"That's just something you work on growing up; there's a guy beside me and I don't try to cut him off and just shoot the puck," Turris said. "I was trying to protect the puck, get good body position and hopefully get a shot on net. I got a little lucky that the goalie went for the poke check and left that side open."
With Wisconsin up by two goals and the period seemingly winding to a close, the Gophers launched their best offensive attack of the night. Crashing UW goalie Shane Connelly and the Wisconsin net in full force, Wheeler was able to get his team-leading 13th goal of the season by flipping a backhanded shot past Connelly with 14 ticks left in the second period, giving Minnesota (12-11-4, 6-9-2 WCHA) some needed momentum heading into the deciding frame.
But as fate would have it, it was Wisconsin who snatched the momentum, firing off the first 12 shots in the third period, one of which gave Wisconsin a much needed insurance goal.
Skating with the puck behind the net, forward Michael Davies drew three Gophers to the far side, allowing junior Ben Street to be unguarded on Kangas' stick side. Flipping a saucer pass over the net to Street, the Badger forward buried the puck into the wide open net to reclaim the two-goal advantage.
"I just found some open room off the wall and we (Michael Davies and I) made ice contact way before he was behind the net," Street said. "I was just waiting and hoping he could make that pass and it was perfect."
It was the exclamation point on a disappointing period for Minnesota, as the Gophers didn't get their first shot on goal in the third period until 7:37 remaining.
"We had some attempts but we missed the net, had some blocked and that's the game," Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said. "They score their third goal and it's pretty tough to come back from that, especially with our team. They are a good defensive team. We had some grade ‘A' chances blocked."
In retrospect, the goal and the end of the second period was the best thing for the Badgers, according to Eaves. Knowing that Wisconsin was getting away from its style of play, a goal served as a wake-up call of sorts, helping the Badgers go into the locker room and refocus on the third period.
"During the course of some games, you never want a period to end because you have some great momentum," Eaves said. "At that case, we wanted the period to end get in so we could go in, gather ourselves and that's just what we did. The kids went out, settled themselves down and went back to playing the way they are capable of playing. That's a good sign of a team maturity when they can do something like that."
After a somewhat disappointing performance last Saturday in Anchorage, a game where the Badgers needed two third-period goals to forge a tie with the host Seawolves, Connelly turned in a solid outing to earn his first win over Minnesota.
Stopping 22 shots, Connelly toughest challenges came in the second period, when the Gopher offense peppered with him 14 shots. Letting only one puck sneak by him, Connelly made plenty of big saves that brought the 14,000+ fans to their feet multiple times.
"It's good for his psyche. If you take a look at his last game in Anchorage, he gave up four goals in 18 shots, but it wasn't a direct byproduct of his play," Eaves said. "We just didn't a very good job in front of him. He's mature enough to understand that and he's maturity enough as a young goal tender."
Bringing the Fight
If anyone had thought the rivalry had begun to cool between the border rivals, the third period showed no indication of tensions settling, highlighted by a five-minute-plus melee at the start of the third. After a save by Kangas, Wisconsin's Blake Geoffrion got a little too close to Kangas for his comfort, resulting in a forearm to Geoffrion's chest.
Taking exception to the forearm, Geoffrion retaliated with one of his own, only to find himself face first on the ice an instant later after Peltier leveled the forward from behind. The 14 penalty minutes handed out were anything by a deterrent, however, as the Badgers and Gophers broke out in multiple altercations throughout the final period.
After only 10 combined penalty minutes between the two teams in the first two periods, Wisconsin and Minnesota were assessed 41 minutes in the final frame.
"We've been hearing all week from the older guys about how big the rivalry is and how much it meant," Turris said. "The whole week of practice, we were battling hard and make sure we were ready. We wanted to get the fans into it early because we knew it was going to be a crazy night. Obviously, it ended how we wanted."