MADISON, WIS. - Though the Gophers came out with plenty of energy at the Kohl Center on Friday, Nate Condon said his team wasn't quite clicking in the first period against Wisconsin.
"We got a lot of shots, but they weren't really quality chances,'' the junior winger said. "We were kind of looking for our game, and then, the power play helped us out.''
The No. 2 Gophers had said all week that special-teams play would be critical in their weekend series against the Badgers. Their mastery on both the power play and the penalty kill lifted them to a 3-2 victory in Friday's opener, pulling them into a tie with North Dakota for second place in the WCHA standings. The Gophers (20-5-4, 12-5-4 WCHA) scored on three of four opportunities with the man advantage and shut down the 18th-ranked Badgers on their only power play.
Wisconsin (12-10-7, 9-7-7) took a 1-0 lead on a goal by Nic Kerdiles and got solid goaltending from Joel Rumpel. But the Gophers bombarded Rumpel with 43 shots and ran the power play with deadly efficiency. Sam Warning, Nick Bjugstad and Seth Ambroz provided the goals, with assistance from their teammates' skillful puckhandling and skating.
Warning snared a rebound off Rumpel's pad and flicked it in to tie the score 1-1 with 69 seconds left in the first period. Bjugstad crushed a one-timer from the left circle at 18:12 of the second period, and Ambroz nudged a loose rebound past the lunging Rumpel for the game-winner at 12:48 of the third.
The series concludes Sunday at the Hockey City Classic in Chicago, where the Gophers and Badgers will play outdoors at Soldier Field. The Gophers had been muting the hype over that game all week, knowing Friday offered two equally important points in the WCHA race. Thanks to their special teams, they got what they came for.
"[The power play] worked perfect for us,'' said Condon, who assisted on Ambroz's winning goal. "Everyone did their responsibilities. That's what you need on the road. You need a big power play, because you're not going to get easy goals.''
The Gophers outshot the Badgers 20-9 in the first period, and Wisconsin did not get another shot in the period after Kerdiles' goal at 14:32. But the Gophers didn't find their groove until the first Badgers penalty, called on Frankie Simonelli for holding Erik Haula. They cashed in on a methodical, patient power play as Warning collected the rebound of Ben Marshall's shot and put it behind Rumpel.
Wisconsin's Joseph LaBate was called for tripping and hooking Kyle Rau late in the second period, giving the Gophers four minutes on the power play. What began in disarray ended with Bjugstad's goal, which gave them a 2-1 lead at the second intermission. The Gophers now have converted on an NCAA-best 26.7 percent of their power-play chances.
"We got pucks into the zone and won battles,'' said Bjugstad, who leads the Gophers with 16 goals, seven on the power play. "Coming up with pucks was key, then we were getting shots on the side, because we know they pack it in on the penalty kill.''
The Gophers now are 3-1 in a crucial five-game road stretch that ends Sunday in Chicago, and Bjugstad said it won't be all fun and games at Soldier Field.
"We've got to get a win,'' he said. "It will be fun to play outside. But we want those two points.''