After only 28 seconds of Friday’s game against Wisconsin, it looked like it might be a charmed night for the Gophers. Vinni Lettieri scored a sleight-of-hand goal to give them a quick lead, snaring a puck behind the goal line and plunking it off Badgers goalie Jack Berry while many fans still were finding their seats at Mariucci Arena.
That good fortune, though, vanished as quickly as it appeared.
A few calamitous mistakes and an absence of luck doomed the fourth-ranked Gophers in a 3-2 loss, dropping them into a tie with Wisconsin at the top of the Big Ten standings. The Gophers (20-9-2, 11-4 Big Ten) outshot the 19th-ranked Badgers 38-18 and piled up 83 shot attempts to Wisconsin’s 38, but they could not overcome three consecutive Badgers goals in the second period.
Wisconsin (18-10-1, 11-4) converted Gophers errors into goals by Trent Frederic, Aidan Cavallini and Ryan Wagner. The Gophers hounded them in the third period, taking 41 shot attempts to the Badgers’ nine, but they could not get the equalizer after Lettieri scored his second goal with 8:08 remaining.
“That’s hockey. It’s a game of mistakes,’’ said Lettieri, who finished with eight shots on goal. “It’s a game where sometimes, it’s just unlucky, and you get snakebit.
“You just have to keep putting it on net. Usually, we’ll score on those, but that’s not how it went.’’
In addition to the two pucks he put past Berry, Lettieri said he raised his hands two or three times on power plays when he thought the Gophers had scored. His team generated many grade-A scoring chances, particularly in the frantic third period.
The Gophers, though, sent 15 shots wide of the net, saw the Badgers block 29 others, hit a pipe and agonized in the second period when a Rem Pitlick shot got behind Berry and skidded along the goal line without crossing it. They also missed connections on some passes and occasionally made one too many.
Coach Don Lucia wasn’t in a mood to nitpick. Despite the loss, the Gophers played with great energy, drive and confidence, even when their best chances went for naught.
“It was a hard-fought game,’’ Lucia said. “I thought the kids had good legs and a good effort. We had great push in the third period right to the end, and we had some good looks. We’ve just got to try to eliminate some of the mistakes.’’
The Gophers were on their toes throughout the first period, starting with Lettieri’s opportunistic goal. He hoped to catch Berry off guard, and he did, plucking Taylor Cammarata’s delivery off the end boards and banking it off the goalie for a 1-0 lead.
As the second period began, the Gophers were not quite as sharp, and it cost them. The Badgers caught them flat-footed on a line change at 3:42, allowing Frederic to score on an odd-man rush to tie it 1-1. On the Gophers’ first power play, Cavallini gave Wisconsin the lead at 7:22 with a shorthanded goal, scoring on a 2-on-1 after the puck got away from Gophers defenseman Steve Johnson.
That lack of precision hurt the Gophers again late in the period. A penalty for too many men on the ice led to Wagner’s power-play goal, which turned out to be the winner.
The Gophers outshot Wisconsin 18-7 in the third period and battered Berry with high-percentage shots, but Lettieri’s goal was the only one to get through. That persistence is the one thing they hope to carry into Saturday’s series finale.
“It gets a little frustrating when you feel like you’re doing everything right, but you just can’t score,’’ defenseman Jake Bischoff said. “You just have to stick with it. And we did a good job of that.’’