Gophers win WCHA, despite loss to Badgers

March 2, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota hockey team was in no mood to celebrate its first regular season WCHA title in five years.

A 4-1 loss to a rival certainly dampens the mood.

Up by two in the WCHA standings entering the season's final weekend, the fourth-ranked Gophers lost 4-1 at home to the University of Wisconsin delaying any potential title celebration. The MacNaughton Cup, the trophy for winning the regular-season championship, was kept in storage and the Gophers didn't know they had clinched at least a share of the title until long after Friday's loss to the Badgers.

But after the University of Minnesota-Duluth lost 2-1 at St. Cloud State University, Minnesota earned at least a share of the title and will be the No. 1 overall seed for the WCHA tournament. The Gophers (23-12-1, 19-8-0) have 38 points to lead the Bulldogs (22-8-5, 16-7-4) by two points in the conference standings.

"It's kind of disappointing after tonight," senior Taylor Matson said after the Bulldogs had lost. "It's kind of one of our worst games of the season."

Tyler Barnes, Ryan Little, Michael Mersch and Mark Zengerle all scored for Wisconsin to chase Minnesota goaltender Kent Patterson from goal for the first time all season. Badgers goaltender Joel Rumpel made 26 saves, helping Wisconsin (16-15-2, 11-14-2 WCHA) to its fourth straight win after five straight losses.

"It's a little indicative of how we've been playing lately," Badgers coach Mike Eaves said. "We've been doing some good things. I think getting the early lead; playing in this building can be difficult if the crowd gets into it. We did a pretty good job of that today."

The crowd never had a chance Friday. Gophers' senior Nico Sacchetti scored his third goal of the season with 1:02 left in the game to break up the shutout.

The loss snapped Minnesota's four-game winning streak and also snapped Patterson's impressive mark in net. Patterson, a senior, was replaced by sophomore backup Michael Shibrowski to start the third period with the Gophers trailing 4-0. Patterson had played every minute in goal this season and had a streak of playing 3,414 minutes, 13 seconds in goal snapped.

The last time any player was in Minnesota's net besides Patterson was Dec. 3, 2010 when Alex Kangas played for the Gophers. Friday was Patterson's 57th straight start and he finished with 11 saves.

"That part of its irrelevant at that point in time," Minnesota coach Don Lucia said of Patterson's streak. "You're thinking big picture and it's 4-0 and the chance that you're going to come back at that point is slim. You know what, get a little bit of rest and get ready to go tomorrow."

By winning Saturday and splitting the season series with Wisconsin, the Gophers could still win the MacNaughton Cup outright. It would be the school's first WCHA regular-season title since the 2006-07 season.

"They're disappointed, but sometimes you can want it too much too," Lucia said. "That can play into it. Just go play. You know what, just go play. It's just another game."

Minnesota still will be the top seed in the conference tournament after sweeping the season series against Minnesota-Duluth this season. The Gophers will host Alaska-Anchorage in the best-of-three first round, which begins next week.

During the week, Minnesota talked about focusing on Wisconsin and letting the WCHA race take care of itself. The Gophers were more concerned with a rivalry game and winning the season series against the Badgers and Friday's game was a physical, chippy affair with several after-the-whistle encounters and even punches being thrown. The teams combined for 20 minutes in penalties, including five roughing penalties.

Minnesota was without leading scorer Nick Bjugstad, who is day-to-day with an undisclosed injury. Lucia said there is a chance he could play in Saturday's regular-season finale.

Perhaps switching the calendar to Saturday will help the Gophers. Minnesota is 7-7 on Fridays in WCHA play and 12-1 on Saturdays in conference action.

Meanwhile, The Badgers have scored 17 goals during their four-game winning streak and controlled play Friday, despite being outshot 26-20.

Barnes opened the scoring in the first period with his ninth goal of the season, converting a rebound. Barnes then screened Patterson as Ryan Little tallied his third of the year, the first of three Badgers goals in the second. Mersch scored a goal for the fourth straight game, notching his 14th of the season and Zengerle added his 12th.

"It was sloppy, a lack of energy," Gophers' senior Jake Hansen said. "I don't know if guys were nervous or what it was."

Shibrowksi made five saves in his first-ever action for the Gophers, who were already looking to Saturday's game.

"This is the biggest game of the year, so I think a lot of guys will be really motivated to play," Matson said. "The seniors and captains have to get everyone motivated and ready to go. It will be a lot better tomorrow."

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