With the two teams entering this weekend's series deadlocked at 40 points a piece, the opening game of the series would go a long way in determining the 2008-09 WCHA regular season champion.
After 60 minutes, advantage Minnesota.
The Gophers took advantage of a lack of Wisconsin aggression and Badger miscues in the opening minutes on their way to scoring a career-high four goals against UW goalie Jesse Vetter, upending the top-ranked Badgers, 4-2, in front of a crowd of 2,562 at Ridder Arena.
"It's a big win for us to finally get that monkey off our back over the past couple years of them having our number," said Minnesota center Jocelyne Lamoureux, referring to the Gophers' first home win over Wisconsin since January 2005. "We played probably our best game of the year."
The reason for that was simple – Minnesota (24-3-2, 19-2-2 WCHA) came out and controlled the tempo, putting Wisconsin (24-2-3, 18-2-3 WCHA) squarely on its heels by pressing the Badgers inside their own defensive zone and taking away UW's time and space offensively.
The result was the Badgers' defense, a unit that was allowing just 20 shots a game and 1.2 goals per outing, giving up 37 shots and a season-high tying four tallies.
"We spent a lot of time in our defensive zone in the first period," said UW forward Meghan Duggan. "I don't know if it was nerves or what. I thought once we picked it up our game, we realized that we can play against these guys and take it too them."
The Gophers were rewarded for pressuring the Wisconsin defense and Vetter. Although leading the nation in goals-against average (1.15) and save percentage (.944), Vetter had little chance to stop a Jocelyne Lamoureux deflected shot to give the Gophers the first strike at 1:27.
"Because of the magnitude of the game and playing in their environment, they are going to be a little more pumped that our players," UW coach Mark Johnson said. "I was hoping to get through six or eight minutes before getting scored on. Unfortunately it only lasted a minute, 27. That creates more energy for them and we were on our heels a lot."
Minnesota doubled its lead early in the second when a gamble by Vetter backfired. A loose puck near center ice turned into a 2-on-0 rush for the Gophers. Off of Jocelyne Lamoureux's pass to teammate Emily West, Vetter tried a poke check to get the puck out of harm's way.
In actuality, Vetter poked the puck right to West, which bounced off her and into the back of net, registering her 14th goal of the season in the easiest of fashions.
Things continued to go south for Wisconsin. A turnover by defenseman Anne Dronen right in front of her own net was caused when she broke her stick on an attempted pass, allowing Lamoureux to notch her second goal of the game, chipping the turned-over puck over Vetter's glove for a 3-0 lead at 11:29 in the second.
"Those are definitely frustrating," Vetter said of the second and third goal. "That's going to happen in the game and you have to respond to it. I thought we did, getting a goal in the second and having some good chances in the third."
Wisconsin's high-powered offense, which was out scoring opponents 4-to-1, finally got a puck past Gopher goalie Alyssa Grogan at 14:14 in the second, when Brooke Ammerman, camped just outside of the crease, scored on a bang-bang play off a pass from forward Jasmine Giles to cut the lead to 3-1 heading into the third.
After that, however, Minnesota wouldn't allow Wisconsin to shave any more off the lead. Gopher defenseman and co-captain Melanie Gagnon rifled a shot from between the circles for a power-play goal at 4:42 to push the lead back to three.
It turned to be a beneficial tally, as UW's Meghan Duggan scored on a breakaway less than 90 seconds later. After that, Grogan shut the door, stopping 17 shots for her 11th victory of the season.
"It was just the goalie, but all six players in our defensive zone that really contained them," Minnesota head coach Brad Frost said. "We've learned that once we get the lead, we need to continue to extend the lead. By going up 4-1 was huge. It allowed us to maintain that two-goal lead."
With the winner of the series the odds on favorite to win the WCHA regular season championship and controlling the tiebreaker between the two squads, both sides know valuable tomorrow's contest is.
"We have adversity throughout the game and you have to respond to that," Johnson said. "Today is done with and we've been given a lesson. Let's learn from that lesson. If you want to be a champion and make it to the top, it's difficult. The game tomorrow, obviously, becomes very meaningful to us."