Freshman Craig Smith had two goals, including the game-winner with under five minutes to play in UW's 3-2 win over Minnesota. For someone as in tune to the rivalry as Smith is, the two goals were extra meaningful.
"Growing up, I've been watching games ever since I was about six years old," he said. "To do it against this team in one of their home barns, it makes it pretty special."
The term "home barn" might have been a stretch. The Gophers, who usually play on campus at Mariucci Arena, played this game at the Target Center, usual home of the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves. Minnesota hadn't played a game at the Target Center since March 18, 2000.
The series opener was staged here because a national synchronized figure skating event was held at Mariucci Arena — a scheduling overlook courtesy of the Minnesota Athletic Department.
As a result of the alternate venue, there were problems with the ice and the nets seemed to easily come off their moorings. The conditions only added to a weird game that disallowed goals and weird bounces.
"I'm not sure what your folks' take on this game was, but if I didn't know any better, I might say there's a full moon out tonight," UW head coach Mike Eaves said. "The third period was kind of back and forth ... young Mr. Smith made a terrific shot and that was the difference in the game."
The Badgers (22-8-4, 17-7-3 WCHA) led 2-1 after two first period goals, but the Gophers tied it up just 2:36 into the third period after Nick Larson tipped a shot by Kevin Wehrs past UW goaltender Scott Gudmandson.
Wisconsin seemed to wake up a bit after allowing the goal, mounting some offensive pressure but finding no results. Finally, senior tri-captain Blake Geoffrion – in his first game back from injury – found Smith in between the circles, where he ripped a wrist shot top shelf to goaltender Alex Kangas' glove side.
"Blake, through in an area pass where one of us should have been," Smith said. "I got to it, knocked it down and turned around and had a shot."
The goal kept Wisconsin unbeaten when leading after two periods of play (20-0-2) and ensured the Badgers wouldn't let a game slip away to a hot Minnesota team.
One of the biggest issues for UW was turnovers, both in the offensive and defensive zones. Freshman defenseman Justin Schultz lost the puck in a first period power play near the Minnesota blue line, leading to a Ryan Flynn breakaway. Flynn fired a low shot to Gudmandson's stick side to put the Gophers up 1-0 early in the game.
Wisconsin responded soon after, when Smith got his first goal on an offensive rush, burying a shot in the slot after a nice pass from Jordy Murray.
The goal was one of two power play goals for Wisconsin in first period, as the Badgers finished 2-5 on the man advantage. Minnesota went 0-6 on the power play.
Wisconsin put on a textbook display of cycling the puck on its second goal. Geoffrion won the draw in the Minnesota zone to start the man advantage, getting the puck to Smith. It reached Derek Stepan before getting to Michael Davies at the line, who sent a beautiful cross-ice pass to Schultz who finished to redeem himself for the earlier turnover. The entire power play lasted seven seconds.
"We had looked, after the first couple of power plays we came back, looked at the video and saw that was going to be open," Geoffrion said. "So Mikey ripped it – that was our first play we were going to run."
The Badgers managed to dodge several more bullets on turnovers – including one of the overturned goals. Defenseman Jake Gardiner turned the puck over to Minnesota's Jacob Cepis, whose shot went off the pipes and straight down, where Gudmandson fell on it. The play was reviewed and it was determined the puck never crossed the goal line.
Another goal was reviewed and disallowed in the beginning of the second period. Minnesota had a five-on-three power play and it appeared Mike Hoeffel managed to tip a shot under Gudmandson. Hoeffel was called for a crease violation and the goal was waved off, allowing UW to kill off the penalties.
"I guess anytime they're going upstairs to review a goal, I try not to just worry about it," Gudmandson said. "I try to just stay focused – I say no matter what happens, I'm going to stop the next one."
The win means Wisconsin, coupled with a loss by St. Cloud State at Minnesota State, secure a spot alone in second place in the WCHA. Minnesota dropped below the .500 mark (16-17-2, 11-14-2) with the loss and is still fighting for seeding in the WCHA playoffs.
The teams will meet again Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. at Mariucci Arena to conclude their regular seasons.
"Like they always say, great teams find a way to get a win and we were able to do that tonight," Geoffrion said. "I think we've proved that all year long."