He didn’t need to see the puck sail into the net. Justin Kloos knew he had scored the go-ahead goal when a full-throated roar rose up in Mariucci Arena, as the No. 4 Gophers took a 3-2 lead over Wisconsin in a taut series finale Saturday.
“I just heard the crowd, then [linemate] Rem [Pitlick] jumped on me, and I was just stoked,” the Gophers captain said. “I knew we had to battle for another five minutes, and we’d come out with a win.”
Those five minutes turned out to be more dramatic than Kloos expected. His goal from the slot with 5 minutes 6 seconds remaining stood up as the winner, but not without some heroics. With the Badgers on a power play and their goalie pulled, they battered Gophers goalie Eric Schierhorn for 58.1 excruciating seconds—including a point-blank shot that crept toward the goal line until it was swept out by center Vinni Lettieri.
When the Gophers were finally able to exhale, they had regained sole possession of first place in the Big Ten standings. The weekend split restored their three-point cushion over the Badgers with four games remaining in the regular season.
The Gophers (21-9-2, 12-4-0-0 Big Ten) took a 2-0 first-period lead with goals by Pitlick and Ryan Norman, then squandered it in the second. Wisconsin (18-11-1, 11-5-0) scored twice on the power play to even the score, including Jake Linhart’s goal with 15.8 seconds left in the period. But Kloos, Schierhorn and Lettieri ensured an announced crowd of 10,469 — third-largest in Mariucci Arena history — would go home happy.
“You need your big-time players to make plays, and that’s what happened on our game-winning goal,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “It was a hard-fought game, and we did enough to win. It was an important win for us, in the scheme of things nationally and in the Big Ten.”
Lucia had challenged the Gophers to get three victories in the final four games of February. After sweeping Penn State last week, they fulfilled that goal Saturday, with their seventh victory in the past nine games.
As they did Friday, the Gophers got off to a quick start. They outshot Wisconsin 15-5 in the first period and took a 1-0 lead at 8:24 on Pitlick’s goal from the left circle. Norman made it 2-0 with a power-play goal, backhanding a rebound past Badgers goalie Matt Jurusik with 4.7 seconds left in the period.
That lead, though, did not survive the second period. In the teams’ three previous games this season, eight of Wisconsin’s 11 goals came in the middle period — a trend that held up in the series finale.
The Gophers handed the Badgers three turns on the power play in the period. Wisconsin scored twice, as Luke Kunin beat Schierhorn at 5:18 and Linhart scored from the top of the right circle. After Kloos’s third-period goal, the Badgers got a golden chance when Darian Romanko was called for a charging penalty with 58.1 seconds left.
With Jurusik pulled to give Wisconsin a six-on-four advantage, Lettieri won a faceoff in the Gophers’ zone. But he directed the puck toward Schierhorn, who knocked it away with his pad — right to the Badgers’ Grant Besse, whose shot hit Schierhorn and trickled behind him before Lettieri lunged to stop it.
“Anything can happen in situations like that,” Lettieri said. “When I won that draw to Eric’s pad, he saved me, so I had to save him.
“We had to beat them. We’re not going to give up two [losses] in our own building, and we needed to get back in that first-place spot. We like where we are. We control our own destiny.”