GRAND FORKS, N.D. — It was Wisconsin’s veterans and size against North Dakota’s rookies and speed.
At the final buzzer, a larger, more experienced Badger team triumphed 3-2 over the faster, less-experienced Fighting Sioux. For the second straight game, UND owned a sizeable advantage in shots on goal (34-20), but came out on the losing end, thanks to outstanding goal tending by Wisconsin’s junior goalie Scott Kabotoff.
Senior forwards scored all three Badger goals. The most important was captain Andy Wheeler’s game winner at 15:12 of the third period. After intercepting an errant Sioux clearing pass, Wheeler and sophomore winger Rene Borque had a two-on-one break in UND’s zone. Wheeler tried to dish the puck to Borque, but Sioux defenseman Chad Mazurak went down to block the pass, which took a strange bounce.
“It came straight back up into my midsection and I knocked it down on the ice,” Wheeler said. “I knew the goaltender didn’t know where it was, so I got it on net off the ice and it was in. I just backhanded the bouncing puck.”
After playing two years in the shadow of Graham Melanson, Kabotoff got his second start of the season and came through with enough big saves to hold the Sioux at bay. He got off to a rocky start last weekend when Wisconsin was upset 5-4 at home by Wayne State.
“The biggest thing for me is that it’s my first win,” Kabotoff said. “It was in a great arena and my dad was in the stands. It was really nice. It was the first time he’s seen me play.”
Was Badger coach Jeff Sauer surprised by Kabotoff’s turnaround? “Kabotoff’s been in our program for two years and has not played,” Sauer said. “He’s now getting a chance to play. He’s a pretty fair goal tender. I’ve been telling everyone that all along way.
“I think he proved tonight that he can play that position. We’re going to give him another chance. He played very well. He deserves to play.”
It was a penalty-filled game in which goalies on both teams were run. It started when Badger freshman Alex Leavitt knocked down Sioux goalie Andy Kollar in the first period out of sight of the officials. Wheeler was called for running into Kollar 1:30 into the second period. Sioux junior forward Ryan Bayda later crashed into Kabotoff, but no penalty was called.
Then at 4:39 of the third period, Bayda ran over Kabotoff again while crashing the net, and this time, a penalty was called on Bayda. However, Bayda’s action drew the ire of Badger defenseman Mark Jackson, who began punching Bayda while he was lying face-down on the ice. As the officials were separating those players, Sioux forward David Lundbohm squared off with Badger forward Matt Murray.
Bayda went to the box with a goalie interference penalty and Jackson went in with a double roughing penalty. Lundbohm and Murray were each tagged for roughing, putting the Sioux on the power play.
Sauer was not pleased with the level of protection the goalies received. “There were three instances where the goaltender was run into,” he said. “I thought all three instances were called the wrong way. Period. They’re supposed to protect the goaltenders in this league and I didn’t think that was done tonight.”
Wisconsin never trailed in the game. The first Badger goal came at 4:05 of the first period with the Badgers on a 5-on-3 power play. Kollar made the save on a slapshot by senior forward David Hukalo, but the rebound went on to the stick of senior center Kent Davyduke, who buried it.
The Sioux tied it up at 7:13 of the second period. In Wisconsin’s zone, forward Matt Murray made a blind backward pass to defenseman Brian Fahey, who had fallen down. Sioux freshman wing Brandon Bochenski scooped up the gift and walked in all alone on Kabotoff. The goalie stopped Bochenski’s first shot, but not the rebound.
Wisconsin took the lead again in the second period when senior forward Dave Hergert tipped in defenseman Dan Boeser’s blast from the point. The play was set up when Leavitt won a faceoff deep in the Sioux zone.
At 1:42 of the third period, UND tied it up again with a power play goal by sophomore wing Ryan Hale. Kevin Spiewak set Hale up with a pass from behind the net. Wheeler’s unassisted goal with just under five minutes left in the last period was all Wisconsin needed.
Although Kollar was pulled for the final 1:11, the Sioux couldn’t get the tying goal.
North Dakota started nine freshmen, three of them on defense, and just two seniors. A key senior missing from North Dakota’s lineup was Aaron Schneekloth, the Sioux defenseman and assistant captain, who won’t play this weekend because of a bone bruise to his hand suffered last week against Maine.
UND coach Dean Blais believes the lack of experience on his young team makes a difference.
“We’ve got freshmen playing roles that normally older guys would, but it takes time,” he said. “This is a different team. It’s not like the teams we’ve had the past five years with older, talented players. When we’ve had success, it’s been with older guys. Most of our talented players are the younger players.”
Bochenski noticed the difference between the Badgers and the Sioux. “When it got down to the stretch, once they got the lead, they knew how to keep it,” he said.
Sauer seemed to agree, noting, “I thought the maturity really paid off down the stretch for us.”
Will a win in North Dakota gain the Badgers some respect?
“You know, it doesn’t matter to me,” Wheeler said. “We’re picked to finish sixth. If we just go quietly and keep winning games here and there, people will notice us. I only care to be noticed at the end of the year.”
Blais and the Sioux don’t have to wait that long.