Myers: Gophers' first Big Ten series win leaves familiar feeling
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MINNEAPOLIS - For all the talk about the new world of college hockey we now live in, the Gophers' stirring 4-3 last-minute win over Wisconsin on Saturday looked mighty familiar.
Yes, it meant a sweep in the team's first true Big Ten hockey series. But in many ways, it felt just like the myriad of WCHA series that these teams played over the course of five-plus decades.
Wisconsin, picked to win the six-team league in the preseason polls based mostly on their wealth of veterans, is off to a slow start. The Badgers lost 4-1 on Friday at Mariucci Arena, and again on Saturday, for a 4-5-1 start.
"I think we played a very tough team pretty well," said Badgers coach Mike Eaves, looking for something positive after a crushing loss. Tied 3-3 with less than 30 seconds left, the Gophers' Travis Boyd took a puck away from Wisconsin start forward Michael Mersch and fed Seth Ambroz, who scored his second goal of the night.
"It was 2-1 with 10 minutes to go last night," Eaves said. "It was 3-3 here with less than 30 seconds to go tonight. As I said to the boys, when you work this hard and you get this close, it hurts."
The Gophers' relative youth in key areas - defense most notably - was supposed to be their undoing, and was the pundits' primary reason for ranking the Badgers just a little bit higher in the preseason polls. But as the calendar turns to December with the U of M sitting at 11-2-1, and 2-0-0 in Big Ten play, nothing resembling an Achilles' heel has materialized thus far, and Ambroz, playing on a line with Boyd and Tom Serratore, typifies the gritty play the Gophers are getting.
"For a guy like Seth Ambroz to take charge was great to see, and that line of a senior and two juniors, so we can have the young guys sprinkled among the other three lines," said Gophers coach Don Lucia, noting that seeing the team rally to overcome 1-0 and 2-1 Wisconsin leads was a good lesson for the freshmen. "You have to stay with games. You're not always going to be in control when you play good teams. There will be times when they have you on your heels and you'll have to fight back for different segments of the play."
As opposed to the 12-team WCHA, which had an unbalanced 28-game conference schedule, the Big Ten is a six-team affair, with 20 conference games. That means the Gophers get two home games and two road games with all of their conference foes. That's a welcome change for Lucia in this new world of college hockey.
"We played at home, and we're going to have to go there and play two," said the coach. "That's one of the beauties of the conference this year, it's a true round robin and we're going to play each other in the other team's building. There are only 20 games, and getting off to a good start is very important."
Another change fans noticed right away was among the officials. The Big Ten crews, put together by noted veteran on- and off-ice official Steve Piotrowski, clearly do not subscribe to the "even up" theory seemingly practiced by WCHA crews for years, whereby when one team gets a penalty, a make-up call against the other team will be coming soon.
The Badgers got the game's first power play in the opening period. The Gophers got the next five man-advantages. Eaves wouldn't comment, for fear of a fine, but wanted to in the worst way.
"You guys always ask us questions about the referees, and you say to us, 'I have to ask the question' and you know that we can't answer, so here we are again," Eaves said. "I would like for you to call Steve Piotrowski and talk to him. There lies a pretty good answer. You want some answers? Talk to the guy who can talk to you guys. I'd love to say something, but I can't, unless you want to give me $1,000 that I can give to them."
Still, referee calls, dramatic goals and new conferences aside, it boiled down to Minnesota and Wisconsin battling on the ice, as they seemingly always have done, with a last-minute mistake and a last-minute opportunistic play deciding things. Eaves said next weekend, when the Badgers host Penn State, or further along in the season when they face Michigan State and Ohio State, it will feel more like Big Ten hockey. But for this weekend, it had many elements of that familiar WCHA feel.
For Lucia, it felt familiar as well. And with a 2-0-0 Big Ten record to go along with the nation's top ranking, it felt like the start of something fun.
"We could be in any conference and it doesn't matter," Lucia said. "We're playing for rivalry and now that we've left the WCHA I'm sure this rivalry will heat back up like it was in the '70s and '80s."
The Gophers visit Michigan State next weekend, and will get a two-game rematch with the Badgers, in Madison, on the opening weekend of February.