November might be too early to be assigning the “must-win” tag to a game, but the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team may have felt it on Saturday anyway.
Mired in a three-game losing streak against rival opponents and facing no letup in the difficulty of the schedule ahead, the Badgers were facing the prospect of being swept at home by Minnesota for the second straight season.
For context, that had happened only once previously, in 1925 and 1926.
A 3-1 victory over No. 16 Minnesota at the Kohl Center, fueled by Josh Ess’ tiebreaking, third-period goal, prevented that indignity, negated the skid and pushed the 20th-ranked Badgers back to .500.
Making his third straight start, freshman Daniel Lebedeff coolly stopped 32 shots for UW, which enjoyed a team effort in responding to a sweep at North Dakota last weekend and a 3-2 loss to the Gophers on Friday.
“We had a meeting today with just the guys,” Badgers captain Peter Tischke said. “We really stressed the fact that in college hockey you have to play a full 60 minutes to win because the tables can turn really fast.”
In a game where the teams combined for 52 shot blocks — 27 by the Badgers — a deadlocked game was going to be decided in favor of the team that was able to get pucks through to the net.
Ess, a defenseman, did that with 9:40 remaining, sending a shot from the top of the zone past Gophers goalie Eric Schierhorn (29 saves), off the left post and in. It was his first goal of the season.
“I finally snuck one through,” Ess said. “(Schierhorn) was a little bit off angle coming out at me, and I just snuck it in.”
Jack Gorniak added an empty-net goal — his first collegiate tally — in the final minute.
Both teams scored a power-play goal in the first period, but it could have been much worse for the Badgers (5-5, 1-1 Big Ten Conference), who lost center Dominick Mersch to a major and game misconduct.
Mersch leveled Tyler Sheehy twice on the same shift, but on the second one Sheehy turned his back just before the hit, drawing a checking-from-behind call.
Minnesota (2-4-1, 1-1) scored less than a minute into the five-minute advantage on a Brannon McManus slap shot that deflected off UW defenseman K’Andre Miller’s stick. But the Badgers killed the rest of the power play without allowing a shot on goal by blocking six straight shot attempts.
“Our guys blocking shots and making my night easy was just the key to my game,” Lebedeff said.
After going 0-for-10 on the power play over its past three games, UW cashed in on a 4-on-3 advantage late in the first. Sean Dhooghe tipped Wyatt Kalynuk’s shot through goalie Eric Schierhorn’s legs for his team-high sixth goal of the season.
The Gophers had a golden chance to take the lead on a second-period power play, but Sheehy tipped a pass from Rem Pitlick wide of an open net.
“It’s something I’ll probably be losing sleep on,” Sheehy said.
Ryan Straschnitzki, who was paralyzed from the chest down in the bus crash that killed 16 of his Humboldt Broncos teammates on April 6 in Saskatchewan, did the ceremonial puck drop before the game.
First period: M — McManus 3 (Walker, Nanne), 11:15 (pp). W — S. Dhooghe 6 (Kalynuk, Miller), 18:00 (pp). Penalties: Mersch, W (major, game misconduct), 10:32; Tischke, W, 16:24; McLaughlin, M, 16:24; Phillips, M, 16:52.
Second period penalties: Inamoto, W, 4:47; Sheehy, M, 6:35; Pitlick, M, 9:47; J. Dhooghe, W, 15:11.
Third period: W — Ess 1 (Messner, J. Dhooghe), 10:20; Gorniak 1, 19:36 (en). Penalties: Norman, M, 11:50; Ramsey, M, 20:00.
Saves: M (Schierhorn 13-7-9) 29; W (Lebedeff 12-10-10) 32. Power plays: M 1-for-4; W 1-for-4. Att. — 11,546.