Cue the mad dash.
Caught in a tight race for home-ice advantage in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, Minnesota edged into sixth place âÄî 1 point clear of Colorado College âÄî with a 3-point weekend at Wisconsin. After a dominant 5-2 win Friday, the Gophers were unable to complete the sweep and settled for a 3-3 tie Saturday, but nonetheless snapped the BadgersâÄô 10-game unbeaten streak at the Kohl Center.
âÄúWe control our own destiny,âÄù head coach Don Lucia said Saturday, minutes after his team slipped ahead of the Tigers and into the final home-ice slot. âÄúWe have to keep getting better and keep working and keep trying to find a way to win games.âÄù
In their final two weekends, the Gophers host WCHA cellar dweller Michigan Tech and travel to conference newcomer Bemidji State to close the regular season. Now on a three-game unbeaten streak âÄî all against top-15 opponents âÄî they appear to be peaking at the right time.
More often MinnesotaâÄôs bane this season, its penalty kill was instead a crux against a Wisconsin power play unit that entered the weekend ranked fourth in the nation. The Gophers paraded to the box during FridayâÄôs third period, but allowed only an inconsequential goal on a sustained 5-on-3 with 31 seconds left in the game. The Badgers ended the night 2-for-10 with the man advantage, then went 0-for-5 on Saturday.
âÄúWe were disciplined with it,âÄù senior winger Jacob Cepis said Friday of his teamâÄôs penalty kill. âÄúUntil that goal at the end on the 5-on-3, we didnâÄôt get seamed and made them shoot some shots they didnâÄôt want to shoot.âÄù
Meanwhile Cepis and his veteran cohort were chipping away at WisconsinâÄôs penalty kill. Fellow seniors Mike Hoeffel and Patrick White scored a power play goal Friday, as did junior Taylor Matson, his first of two goals on the night. The GophersâÄô power play was 3-for-6 Friday.
But CepisâÄô two even strength goals âÄî one Friday, one Saturday âÄî may have been the most important of the weekend.
Barely a half minute into the second period Friday, WisconsinâÄôs Jake Gardiner leveled the score at 1-1 with a power play goal that revived the crowd of 14,315 at the Kohl Center. With the momentum threatening to swing toward the Badgers, Cepis scored 70 seconds later to reclaim a lead the Gophers would not surrender.
Less than two minutes later, Matson stretched the lead to two with a power play goal of his own and before the end of the period scored another for the second multiple-goal game of his career.
CepisâÄô goal Saturday, which gave Minnesota a 3-2 lead 44 seconds into the final period, was as much a product of senior Cade FairchildâÄôs three-line pass as it was CepisâÄô breakaway backhand that beat Wisconsin goalie Brett Bennett five-hole.
Bennett made 28 saves Saturday in relief of Scott Gudmandson, who uncharacteristically allowed five goals Friday, worsening the 1.93 goals against average he brought into the weekend.
Less than three and a half minutes after Cepis gave the Gophers the lead, Jefferson Dahl leveled the score with his first career goal. It set up a frantic final period but neither team could notch a game-winner.
Junior goaltender Kent Patterson made the only save in a quiet overtime period, one of 32 on the night following a 36-save Friday performance.
âÄúI think there [are] two pretty tired hockey teams right now because I think [we] both laid it on the line,âÄù Lucia said after SaturdayâÄôs overtime.