MADISON, WI — Wisconsin’s players pledged to start the game fast. They could not have planned to start as fast as they did.
The Badgers tallied three goals on their first three shifts of the game and scored four times in less than four minutes on their way to a 5-1 victory over Minnesota-Duluth.
“I think the most surprised person was me,” Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer said. “I think the players expected to come out and get off to a quick start tonight; they had talked about it in the (team) meeting. They were very serious about putting this one in the books so we can get some confidence going into the playoffs.”
The game was Sauer’s last regular season contest as head coach at Wisconsin, and was followed by a 15-minute ceremony honoring the Badgers’ longtime coach. It was also the 900th all-time victory for Wisconsin hockey.
Wisconsin freshman goaltender Bernd Bruckler stopped 47 shots before being pulled for senior Mark Baranczyk at 16:07 in the third. Fan favorite Baranczyk made two saves and was duly cheered by the Badger faithful to close out senior night at the Kohl Center.
The Badgers took a 1-0 lead just 43 seconds into the game when senior center Matt Murray fired a shot from the top of the circle that fooled Duluth sophomore goalie Adam Coole.
On the second shift of the game, just 25 seconds later, junior Brad Winchester pounced on a rebound in front of the net put it in the back of the net to make it 2-0.
Wisconsin took a three-goal lead just 51 seconds after that, on the game’s third shift, when sophomore wing Rene Bourque took a slapshot from the circle that beat Coole to the glove side.
Coole was pulled after the third goal in favor of junior Rob Anderson, after making just one save.
“Had the third goal been the second goal, it probably would have happened then,” Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said. “When you get beat clean by two shots with no traffic, you’ve got to make the move.”
The Badgers nearly scored on their fourth shift of the game as well, but the line did manage to draw a penalty.
“We had a chance there where all four lines could have scored there on their first shift,” Sauer said. “The fourth guys that came out had a great opportunity as well.”
On the ensuing power play, Winchester netted his 14th goal of the season to make it 4-0.
“It’s one of those things where it happens so fast, you just kind of go, ‘Whoa!’ I don’t think you have time to get mad,” Sandelin said.
After Wisconsin took its commanding lead, Bruckler was peppered, making 21 saves in the first period on his way to 47 for the game. Through the course of the game Wisconsin was called for 12 minor penalties and one misconduct, resulting in seven power-play opportunities for the Bulldogs.
“We didn’t do a good job from the standpoint of staying out of the penalty box and we gave them a lot of shots,” Sauer said. “We are not going to give up that many shots through the playoffs and have a lot of success. So we have got to clamp down and stay out of the penalty box.”
Bruckler was solid throughout the game, surviving a series of flurries from the Bulldogs. Duluth’s lone goal was scored by junior wing Judd Medak at 19:21 in the second period on a shot from the point, after Bruckler had been knocked into the net by Duluth center Jon Francisco.
On back-to-back evenings Wisconsin’s goaltenders held Duluth to just one goal despite a barrage of shots. Friday night Badger junior netminder Scott Kabotoff had 34 saves and lost a shutout with just 21 seconds left.
“Look at it this way,” Sauer said. “Coming through the playoffs you are looking at a series where you have the possibility of having to go three nights. You want to make sure you have both goaltenders in a confident state of mind. We have two goaltenders who I think believe in themselves, plus the team believes in them and that is the real key.”
Wisconsin will host Minnesota State-Mankato Friday at the Kohl Center to open a best two-out-of three series in the WCHA playoffs first round.
“I never expected this team to win the WCHA championship,” Sauer said. “But I thought we had a team that could finish in the top five and then see what we could do along the way. We are playing with confidence, hopefully we can put some pressure on (Mankato) right off the bat and then, who knows?”