CHICAGO - During their two days in Chicago, the Gophers created an album of memories they will carry long after their college hockey careers. They enjoyed a team meal at a fine Italian restaurant, where they got to meet hockey legend Bobby Hull. They were treated royally by organizers of the Hockey City Classic and made program history with the first outdoor game in its modern era, playing in storied Soldier Field.
Everything felt perfect, they said -- except for the outcome. The No. 2 Gophers were unable to stick to a game plan that forced them out of their usual high-skill style, falling 3-2 to Wisconsin to split their WCHA series against the 18th-ranked Badgers. On the rough ice of an outdoor rink, Wisconsin (13-10-7, 10-7-7 WCHA) prevailed by keeping things simple.
That played into the Badgers' nature, allowing them to score three goals in quick succession in the second period. Goalie Joel Rumpel was given the game puck by his teammates for holding the Gophers (20-6-4, 12-6-4) at bay as they dominated the first period. The Badgers then took over by putting the puck on net, scoring three times in 3 minutes, 19 seconds.
Freshman defenseman Kevin Schulze of White Bear Lake scored from the left point, sending the puck bouncing past Gophers goalie Adam Wilcox at 13:03 of the second. Fellow blue-liner John Ramage banged a shot from the right point off the shin pad of Gophers defenseman Mike Reilly at 14:13, and Sean Little got loose in front of the net to slide in a rebound at 16:22.
The Gophers outshot Wisconsin 38-19 and mounted a rally with goals by Seth Ambroz and Zach Budish in the third. But straying from the only viable strategy sent them home feeling a little empty after a weekend they called a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"It was a great outing for us," said Budish, who scored at 18:18 of the third with Wilcox pulled for a sixth skater. "But it was disappointing to lose. We got away from our game in the second period. Give Wisconsin credit. They went to the net and made plays."
No. 12 Notre Dame beat third-ranked Miami (Ohio) 2-1 in the first game of Sunday's doubleheader. Gophers coach Don Lucia saw his son Mario score the first goal for the Irish, who also got assists from Edina natives Anders Lee and Steven Fogarty. Attendance for the two games was announced at 52,051.
Most of the fans gathered on the east side of the stadium, warmed by a bright sun that glinted off Notre Dame's gold helmets. While the Irish and Miami had to contend with glare and shadows cast over portions of the rink, the entire ice surface fell under shade and the stadium lights were illuminated before the Gophers and Badgers started.
Lucia watched the first game from rinkside, getting a close-up look at the choppy ice. By the time he got behind the Gophers' bench in his throwback varsity jacket and newsboy cap, the temperature had cooled to 28 degrees, and the shade and the Chicago breeze made it feel colder.
The ice, he said, held up better for the Gophers and Badgers. Still, he and Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves both cautioned their players that it was unsuited for tape-to-tape passes and slick playmaking. That aided the Badgers, whose roster is built for a simple, disciplined game.
The Gophers outshot Wisconsin 15-6 in the opening period, testing Rumpel with eight close-range shots. They also failed to score on two power plays in the first 24 minutes, as Ramage speculated the ice "de-skilled" the nation's most effective power play.
"We didn't seem to be on our toes in the first period," said Eaves, whose Badgers are undefeated in three outdoor games since 2006.
"We seemed to be on our heels. [Rumpel's] performance in the first period allowed us to get our feet underneath us."
With Eaves urging them to put the puck on net in any way they could, Schulze and Ramage both flung long shots that benefited from odd bounces. Little secured position in front of the net to knock in the rebound of Jake McCabe's shot from the point, and Rumpel -- wearing a toque with a pompon atop his helmet -- kept the Gophers frustrated.
Ambroz poked in a rebound at 2:36 of the third to get the Gophers going, but Lucia said the outdoor ice made it challenging to come from behind.
"I thought we played a very good first period, then we got away from our game," he said.
"We started to try to make plays that weren't there under the conditions. We were going to have to get muck-and-grind goals, and we didn't get enough of them."