MADISON, Wis. — A tense third period aside, Wisconsin fans received a treat Saturday night as the Badgers completed a weekend sweep of Alabama-Huntsville with a 3-2 win.
For the second night in a row, the Chargers (0-2) rallied in the third period and threatened the Badgers’ lead several times.
When asked whether the Badgers (3-1) played better against UAH Saturday night, Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said, “Absolutely. We were much more focused.”
Wisconsin built a 3-0 lead in the second period that would only last 49 seconds, when Alabama-Huntsville’s Karlis Zirnis started the comeback attempt by scoring a breakaway goal. The spirited UAH rally ended only as the final buzzer sounded.
“I thought that we played 50 minutes of this game fairly strong, and the last 10 minutes we kind of lost our focus, took some bad penalties,” said Wisconsin center Alex Leavitt. “It shouldn’t have been a close game at the finish, we should’ve been able to put them away at the beginning of the third period.”
Zirnis, the Chargers’ Latvian star, led all players with a goal and an assist. Zirnis, along with Badgers forwards Brad Winchester and Erik Jensen, had a three-point weekend.
Winchester, after an impressive performance on Friday, was barely heard from Saturday night. Picking up where he left off, however, were the Badgers’ freshmen. Half of the Wisconsin points (a goal and three assists) came from its first-year players.
“They’re growing at a little faster rate than some of our guys because ingrained habits aren’t there,” said Eaves, who has shook up most facets of the Wisconsin program.
Things heated up toward the end of the second period and into the third. One of the biggest crowd responses of the game was directed at an altercation between Winchester and Tyler Butler at the end of the second. Referees had to break the two up after they began swinging and exchanging words. Each received an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty.
Alabama-Huntsville’s power-play lines were continually frustrated. Despite heavy offensive pressure, Wisconsin’s penalty kill unit was able to continue its high level of play from the night before. UAH had several near misses and was held to only one power-play goal, which came off a five-minute major hooking penalty by Jensen.
Badger fans held their collective breath when UAH went on a man advantage, thanks to a penalty against Alex Leavitt with 3:07 left in the game. The sigh of relief came only when the final shot ended up in the glove of Wisconsin goalie Bernd Bruckler (18 saves).
The first period exhibited some excitement but no goals. Bruckler faced only three shots the entire period. Alabama-Huntsville’s best shots, a textbook one-timer only minutes in and a slap shot from between the face-off circles, missed the net entirely.
The Wisconsin offense was not far ahead of UAH in the first, however. The Badgers’ passing game was fluid and often impressive, but any promising shot opportunities it produced either were missed or blocked by alert Chargers defensemen.
The second period was as much of a change from the first as possible. Four goals and four penalties set the tone for what was a fast paced 20 minutes.
UW started the goal scoring at 16:39. Freshman Brent Gibson struggled to keep possession of the puck but managed to get a controlled pass off to fellow freshman Nick Licari. Licari snapped off a shot that was too quick for Alabama-Huntsville goalie Adam MacLean (12 saves, two goals against).
Four minutes later, the Badgers struck again. Jensen collected his third point of the series on a pass that missed its intended target and wound up on the stick of defenseman Chris Julka. Julka thought about passing but opted for a long-range shot on goal that sped into the top shelf for another UW goal.
The Chargers, as a result, sent in their third goalie of the series, freshman Scott Munroe (15 saves, one goal against).
At 5:49 of the second, the Badgers extended their lead to 3-0 in an unorthodox fashion. Munroe showed his inexperience by coming out of the crease to block a shot by Ryan MacMurchy, in turn providing a clear firing lane for an incoming Alex Leavitt. Leavitt was able to rebound the puck and beat Munroe back to the net for a goal.
“Ryan [MacMurchy] picked [the puck] up, took the shot and Alex supported the play and was Johnny on the spot,” said Eaves. “It was because of his responsibility away from the puck first that led to his ability to score.”
The Chargers were determined not to leave the period without a score, however. UAH defenseman Tyler Butler threaded a cross-ice pass to a wide-open Zirnis, setting him up with a breakaway. Zirnis made use of the break to deke Bruckler for the Chargers’ first goal.
UAH took advantage of Jensen’s lengthy penalty to score a power-play goal. With 6:41 left, freshman Jared Ross received a perfect pass across the crease from teammate Craig Bushey. Bruckler had no reaction time as Ross completed the one-timer and cut the Badgers’ lead to one goal.
“I thought, going into the third period, that we’d prolly be able to take the score up a little more than what actually happened,” said Leavitt.
Wisconsin will head to New England next weekend for games at Boston College and Northeastern. They will be the last non-conference games for the Badgers before they begin the WCHA season at home against Denver the following week.
Alabama-Huntsville continues its WCHA road trip with a series at Denver next weekend.