Heading into the weekend separated by only three points in highly-contested WCHA conference and virtually deadlocked in the all-important PairWise Rankings, both No.15 Wisconsin and No.16 Minnesota-Duluth knew that Saturday's night contest would be another playoff atmosphere in a long-line of high-octane atmospheres.
And as usually the case, the team that does the little things wrong usually comes up on the short end, something that is going to cause two Wisconsin players a very rough night's sleep.
A costly turnover in the Badger zone led to the only tally of the game by Minnesota-Duluth forward Jordan Fulton, as 33 saves from goalie Alex Stalock proved to be enough to carry the Bulldogs to an important series split Saturday night.
"We needed to come out and have a good first road period, we did and ended up getting two crucial points for us," said Stalock. "Coming off of last night, we just needed a bounce here or there."
In actuality, Minnesota-Duluth (14-8-6, 8-7-5 WCHA) got two big ones.
After the Wisconsin (14-11-3, 11-7-2 WCHA) killed off its fifth penalty of the night, a costly turnover by sophomore right winger Podge Turnbull deep in his own zone led to the game's only score.
Instead of clearing the zone, Turnbull threw towards the right circle that was intercepted as center ice by Duluth center Jack Connolly. Gaining control of the puck as he ended toward the right circle, Connolly fed Fulton in the slot for a one-timer that UW goalie Shane Connelly (18 saves) couldn't stop at 4:32.
With his teammates in front of him getting the lead, Stalock – entering the night with the conference's best goals against average at 2.33 – had all the cushion he would need, earning his 13th win and third shutout of the season.
"It's nice to see him get a shutout. He played that well," Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said. "He doesn't like giving up the goals and he doesn't like making mistakes."
Thanks to a blunder by Wisconsin senior forward Tom Gorowsky, Stalock avoided what could have been a monumental mistake.
Playing the puck from behind his net at 9:25 in the first period, Stalock tried to go up the middle with his clearing pass. Sitting at center ice, Gorowsky read the play perfectly and intercepted it in the slot, getting a wide-open net when Stalock collided with UW forward Andy Bohmbach.
With a wide-open net and the prospect of getting on the scoreboard first just 20 feet on front of him, Gorowsky rushed his attempt and sent a hard wrister instead wide to the right, as the crowd of 15,237 cried in disbelief.
"I had all the time in the world and I just wasn't focused for whatever reason," said Gorowsky. "It wasn't the reason we lost the game, but it made the game a lot different. It hurt the team with momentum. It was extremely frustrating and disappointing."
Added Stalock: "He's probably going to have nightmares about that."
The lost cost Wisconsin a chance to move into a first-place tie with Denver atop the WCHA Standings and puts UW alone in third place while the win moved Minnesota-Duluth into a three-way tie with Colorado College and Minnesota for fourth place.
"I am not going to lie, I thought this was a must win game, a game we needed to win to be in position for home ice," Sandelin said. "This was like a playoff game, part two. I told our guys that we needed to play better for 60 minutes (and) I thought we played much better from start to finish."
Although Wisconsin held the conference's top power play to 0-for-8 on the weekend and 0-for-5 on Saturday with zero shots attempted, the Badgers failed again to string together back-to-back solid nights, as UW is 1-3-1 in its last five series finales.
With a trip to border-rival Minnesota next week for the Badgers, it's a clear message as to what UW needs to do down the stretch.
"We just haven't been able to put together a good Saturday night after a Friday," Gorowsky said. "If we want to be a championship caliber team, we've got to play at least two games in a row, if not three. We need to find a way to get energized for Friday and Saturday."