CHICAGO — Leading up to its weekend series against Wisconsin, the Minnesota men’s hockey team tried not to get ahead of itself and think too much about Sunday’s game at Soldier Field. There would be plenty of hoopla surrounding the event, but the Gophers needed points in order to climb the WCHA standings. Simply put, they couldn’t overlook Friday’s game in Madison.
Minnesota indeed took care of business Friday, downing the Badgers by a 3-2 final at the Kohl Center. But the Gophers failed to pick up the sweep Sunday in Chicago as Wisconsin earned a split with a 3-2 win.
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For as memorable as the school’s first outdoor game was, the Gophers left Chicago with a sour taste in their mouths.
“It’s something I know our players will remember for the rest of their life, but like I told them, you remember it better if you win,” said head coach Don Lucia. “Unfortunately that didn’t happen tonight.”
Despite being one of the top-ranked teams in the country, Minnesota has continued to look up at several teams in the conference standings and entered Sunday’s game in fourth place (albeit with fewer games played than the rest of the teams in the conference). Against a Wisconsin team not far behind in the WCHA, the Gophers had a chance to put some separation between them and their rivals while chasing first-place St. Cloud State.
Instead, Minnesota settled for a split and now has work to do heading into its final six games of the regular season.
“They’re a good team and they’ve played great since November,” Lucia said of the Badgers. “It’s not easy to win two.”
It was the second time in as many weeks that the Gophers entered the second game of the series with a chance to earn a sweep. Last weekend, Minnesota beat first-place St. Cloud by a 4-2 final, but fell 4-3 in the series finale. After Friday’s game in Madison, the Gophers had a day off before Sunday’s game in Chicago.
Like last weekend, Minnesota could only muster a split.
“When you win on Friday night and then you go into that game two, you set yourself up to have a great weekend,” Lucia said. “Both times on Saturdays, we didn’t get the job done. That’s what’s disappointing to me, that we had the opportunity to take another step and we didn’t.”
Minnesota never led Sunday as Wisconsin scored 6:57 into the second period on a goal by Kevin Schulze. Just over a minute later, John Ramage’s shot bounced off a Gophers defender’s leg and into the net for a 2-0 Badgers lead. Wisconsin poured it on just over two minutes after that to make it a 3-0 advantage when Sean Little buried a rebound past Minnesota freshman goalie Adam Wilcox.
In a span of 3:19, the Gophers accumulated what proved to be an insurmountable lead in a game that was built up with plenty of hype.
“Obviously it’s disappointing to lose, but we talked about last night as a team it’s a big stage and big event,” said Gophers forward Zach Budish, who scored for Minnesota with 1:42 remaining in the game. “I’m sure people were tuning in across the country. This is what it’s like when you get down to the NCAA Tournament. I think it’s a good learning experience for us. We’ve got to learn to play a full 60-minute game.”
Minnesota now prepares to host Minnesota Duluth next weekend as it looks to fine-tune things leading up to the playoffs. Sunday’s game showed the Gophers that they still have things to work on, but the pomp and circumstance surrounding the OfficeMax Hockey City Classic may have prepared Minnesota for the extraneous elements of a postseason tournament.
For many of Minnesota’s players, Sunday was the first time they’ve played an official outdoor game. Many had grown up skating on frozen ponds or local rinks, but nothing of this magnitute.
While it was no doubt a memorable night surrounded by plenty of fanfare, Sunday’s game still counted in the standings. Because of what was at stake, this loss might linger a little longer than usual.
“It was unbelievable. You could feel the fans on top of you from far away,” said Gophers junior Nate Schmidt, who made his first trip to Soldier Field. “It was a great event. I appreciate our time here. The city of Chicago put on a great event for us here. It’s just tough that it came out the way it did.”