MADISON, Wis. — A backdrop rich with playoff intensity gave way to history Saturday night at the Alliant Energy Center as the fifth-seeded Wisconsin Badgers defeated the sixth-seeded Denver Pioneers 6-2 in the second and final game of a best-of-three WCHA playoff series.
With Wisconsin (20-13-4) ahead in the series 1-0, the visiting Pioneers played the first period with a sense of desperation. And after the Badgers tallied six goals on starting goaltender Wade Dubielewicz Friday, Denver head coach George Gwozdecky replaced Dubielewicz with freshman netminder Adam Berkhoel.
Though Denver (19-15-4) had several chances to take the early lead, Badger goaltender Graham Melanson robbed one Pioneer goal-scoring opportunity after another, keeping the score knotted at zero with 16 saves in the first period.
“He [Melanson] was a huge difference and at this time of year, a strong goaltender helps you advance,” Gwozdecky said.
While the first stanza was a defensive dream, the second period displayed each team’s underrated offenses.
Not even a minute into the second, Badger forward Kent Davyduke took a pass from Andy Wheeler at center ice. Needing only to beat one Pioneer defender, Davyduke backhanded a shot over the shoulder of freshman goaltender Adam Berkhoel, giving the Badgers a 1-0 advantage. Denver responded to the challenge by tying the game at one when freshman defenseman Ryan Caldwell took a faceoff and blasted the puck from the blue line past Melanson
Ninety seconds later, junior center David Neale found a rebound in the low slot, turned and fired it on net. Melanson was able to get a piece of the puck, but not enough of it as the Pioneers took the lead 2-1 with 12:10 remaining in the second period.
Needing a break, the Badgers’ Matt Murray took what seemed to be a broken play behind the net and found the five-hole on Berkhole, knotting the game at two.
Just 30 seconds later, as the crowd was settling down, Wisconsin’s Dany Heatley found himself on a breakaway opportunity. The sophomore forward put the puck over Berkhoel’s glove, retaking the lead for the Badgers, 3-2.
That span was the turning point of the game, robbing the Pioneers of momentum.
The final period saw the Badgers pull away as Kevin Granato put in an awkward angle shot which found its way between Berkhoel and the post, giving the Badgers a 4-2 advantage.
That was the insurmountable goal Wisconsin was looking for in the final period, and the Badger bench knew it.
“Granato broke [Denver's] back with his goal,” Melanson said. “I had a good feeling from that point.”
Wisconsin would put the game out of hand with scores from defenseman Jeff Dessner and Davyduke, giving the Badgers a relatively easy victory and allowing the team to use its third and fourth lines more. By doing so, it allowed the first two lines, in particular Heatley, some rest before next week’s WCHA Final Five.
“I pulled [Heatley] off the ice both last night and tonight for the last seven minutes because there was no need for him to be out there and get hurt,” Badger head coach Jeff Sauer said.
Though the Pioneers played well for a period and a half, senior forward Bjorn Engstrom acknowledged the desire Wisconsin played with when presented with opportunities this weekend.
“I thought we played a pretty good game,” Engstrom said. “We had some breakdowns, and that was enough for [Wisconsin] to win.”
As far as the history Melanson made, the senior matched a WCHA record for goalies by playing in his 137th game, tying him with Brant Nicklin of Minnesota-Duluth.
Melanson also tied a school record by winning his 80th game, equaling the mark set by Duane Derksen set from 1988-92. The 80 victories also place the senior netminder third all-time in WCHA history, two wins shy of Ron Grahame of Denver.
Wisconsin advances to the WCHA Final Five in St. Paul, Minn., where the Badgers will face either Colorado College or Minnesota-Duluth in the play-in game Thursday.