MINNEAPOLIS — The playoffs can be a cruel, unforgiving time, and members of the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team got a jolt of that reality Saturday night.
The lesson might come in handy somewhere down the line.
The Badgers had fourth-ranked Minnesota right where they wanted them — tactically and psychologically — going into the third period of their Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular-season finale at sold-out Mariucci Arena.
But the Gophers proved their championship mettle, erasing a one-goal deficit in the final 20 minutes with some clutch work on special teams and earned sole possession of the MacNaughton Cup with a 2-1 triumph before an announced crowd of 10,241.
The Badgers were in position to win their fifth straight game and add another layer of confidence to their postseason psyche. They had the lead courtesy of a power-play goal by sophomore right winger Tyler Barnes in the second period. They were going on another power play with a chance to pull away. Just as they had en route to a 4-1 triumph in the series opener Friday night, they had Minnesota players thinking too much in a highly charged atmosphere.
“We thought we were getting under their skin,” UW junior defenseman and assistant captain Justin Schultz said.
But then came a botched exchange that led to a short-handed goal by center Erik Haula, and defenseman Nate Schmidt converted on the power play to give the Gophers their first WCHA regular-season title since 2006-07 and a first-round date with Alaska-Anchorage.
“It’s only going to make us better,” Schultz vowed.
The 10th-place Badgers (16-16-2 overall) will play at third-place Denver in a best-of-three first-round series starting Friday. Bemidji State’s late-night sweep of host Alaska-Anchorage vaulted the Beavers ahead of the Badgers into ninth place.
“This is the way we need to play no matter where we go,” UW coach Mike Eaves said.
One night after freshman goaltender Joel Rumpel gave “props” to Gophers fans via Twitter for their derisive sing-song chants — he said he caught himself warbling along — he kept them quiet with some opening-period brilliance.
Among his 15 saves in the first 20 minutes Rumpel snuffed out bang-bang tries in tight by right winger Zach Budish and center Nick Bjugstad, a nifty tip attempt by Haula and another rapid-fire sequence in close by Haula and left winger Sam Warning.
Rumpel (31 saves) also made a combined four stops while thwarting two Minnesota power plays.
“He played well all weekend,” Eaves said of Rumpel.
As he did in the opener, Barnes gave the Badgers the initial lead, this time converting on the power play for his 10th goal of the season. Stationed at the left post, he banged a rebound past goaltender Kent Patterson at 10 minutes, 26 seconds.
Things got testy late in the second when freshman Kyle Rau leveled UW freshman left winger Joseph LaBate at center ice. No penalty was called even though the sequence looked almost identical to an episode Feb. 4 at the Kohl Center when UW junior defenseman and captain John Ramage was assessed a 5-minute major for contact to the head.
“The young boy’s woozy on his feet and there’s no contact to the head?” Eaves asked rhetorically, referring to LaBate. “That doesn’t add up does it?”
The chippiness led to a dust-up that gave the Badgers a power play early in the third, but instead of extending their lead, they lost it for good.
Schultz and Zengerle, a sophomore center, were trying to make a drop-pass exchange in the neutral zone, but they were too close together, allowing right winger Jake Hansen to disrupt it. Haula pounced on the turnover and went in alone on Rumpel. Haula tied it at 4:47 with a backhander between Rumpel’s pads.
“Ninety-nine times out of 100 he just goes right by that (defender) like it’s simple,” Barnes said of Zengerle.
“Obviously a little bit of miscommunication,” Schultz said.
The Gophers (24-12-1) took the lead when Schmidt made two athletic plays in a span of seconds.
First he got to his knees and barely held the zone by intercepting a clearing attempt by Schultz. Then he got to his feet, stepped around an aggressive slide by junior left winger and assistant captain Ryan Little trying to block an anticipated shot, and leaned into a low slap shot that beat Rumpel.
“I was in the right place and just kind of kept (the puck) in,” Schmidt said. “I went up to take the big hammer and the guy kind of slid down and I just pulled it around him. I saw we had a couple guys in front and I just thought, ‘Get the puck to the net and hopefully hit it.’ It was all good things from there.”