MILWAUKEE — With his team’s leading scorer half a world away, Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer had sufficient reason to be concerned about where exactly any offensive production would come from in the Bank One Badger Hockey Showdown.
Turns out that wasn’t too much of a problem. But the textbook for “Holding a Lead 101″ may soon become mandatory reading for the Badgers.
Wisconsin scored five goals in the first period, but watched Princeton slowly and deliberately chip away at the lead before the Badgers could run out the clock in a 6-3 victory at the Bradley Center on Friday.
The Badgers (12-9) will play Boston University in the championship game on Saturday. The Tigers (5-6-3) are matched up with North Dakota in the consolation game.
Despite leading scorer Dany Heatley being absent while playing for the Canadian team at the World Junior tournament in Russia, the Badgers got goals from all four offensive lines, two from third-line center Kent Davyduke.
“I’m concerned with scoring goals, I’m concerned with the effort and I’m concerned with the consistency,” Sauer said, noting his worries before the game. “We’re a good hockey team when I can use the four lines and jump them over the boards like we did tonight for the majority of the game.
“We’re a better team when we get into a rhythm. That, more than anything, is what I was pleased with tonight. Our system will produce offensive opportunities for us if we can stay in a rhythm and don’t have to end up killing penalties too much.”
Said Badgers winger Dave Hergert: “We know [Heatley's] doing his thing, which if any of us had that opportunity, would [too]. We wanted to start off the second half of the season on the right foot. That was our main focus, was to get it going in the right direction.”
The killer for Princeton, and essentially what ended up being the difference on the scoreboard (counting a Kevin Granato empty-net goal with 21.9 seconds left), was two shorthanded goals the Tigers allowed in the last minute of the first period to give the Badgers a 5-0 lead entering the first intermission.
“The difference between going into the second period down 3-0 and going in 5-0 to two shorthanded goals, I think that mounts a lot of frustration,” said Princeton senior center Shane Campbell, who scored the Tigers’ first goal, but after they had crawled into a huge hole.
And that has been a problem for Princeton of late. The Tigers have been outscored 12-1 in the first period in their last three games.
“It’s kind of been our problem period these past few games, especially against UNH and RPI,” said Tigers goaltender Nate Nomeland, who replaced starter Dave Stathos after the first period.
“We just came out, didn’t play our game, didn’t skate, didn’t think and get down as a result of it. We seem to come back and play strong. I guess we can take some kind of confidence away going into tomorrow, but the fact that it’s happened three times in a row, it’s getting a little repetitive.”
So what’s the problem, you ask?
“If we knew, the problem would be solved,” Nomeland said. “We seem to prepare well in the locker room, the attitude is great. I don’t know if it’s jitters or what, I really can’t explain it. We just haven’t been playing our game in the first period the past few weeks.”
The shorthanded goals came less than 30 seconds apart late in the first, and both were two-on-one breaks. With 42.6 seconds left, Matt Murray took a pass from Andy Wheeler and beat Stathos. With 14.6 on the clock, Dave Hergert fed Davyduke for his second goal of the period.
“The two shorthanded goals were certainly the key to the game,” Sauer said.
Princeton coach Len Quesnelle attributed the shorthanded goals partially to his players pressing forward a bit too much on the power play, already trailing 3-0.
“At the same time, I think that’s just mental,” Quesnelle said.
Despite the Badgers’ first five-goal lead of the season, they proved they might have some work to do in advantage maintenance.
Princeton scored a pair of goals two minutes apart in the second period and cut the lead to two with Steve Slaton’s second goal of the season at 2:07 of the third.
Slaton grabbed the rebound of a Tommy Colclough turnaround shot and put it past Wisconsin goaltender Graham Melanson to change the feel of the third period to something much more competitive.
That followed Campbell’s goal at 13:09 — one that initially waved off by referee Tom Goddard but was ruled a goal after a video review — and Matt Maglione’s bank shot that went in off the right post at 15:17 of the second period.
Said Quesnelle: “I thought we played well in the second and third periods.”
But the Tigers had already allowed too much damage, the first two Wisconsin goals materializing off sloppy play in the Princeton end.
Dave Hergert got the Badgers on the board just 3:29 into the game, beating Stathos with a slap shot from the top of the right circle. But the play was set up when John Eichelberger’s pass attempt hit a Tigers defenseman and bounced right to Hergert.
Midway through the first, Rene Bourque intercepted a errant clearing pass at the right point, skated in uncontested and roofed a backhanded shot, a play Sauer called a “major-league goal.”
Wisconsin again got behind the Tigers’ defense for its third goal. Erik Jensen carried the puck below the goal line to the right of the net and put a nice pass out front to Davyduke for an easy redirect.
After Stathos was pulled (he made only four saves on nine shots in the first period), Nomeland made several key saves to keep the Tigers in the game, albeit while still on life support.
He made 19 saves, but was more concerned about the team’s result.
“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Nomeland said. “You want to play well when you get in there and you have to be happy with the individual results, but the main thing is the team result and we didn’t get it done.”