MILWAUKEE — The days of the two-goal Badgers were exhausted with an empty-net goal, but it’s the Wisconsin defense that kept the team afloat at its tournament.
The Badgers scored more than two goals for the first time in 10 games Monday night when John Funk’s empty-netter sealed Wisconsin’s 3-1 victory over No. 14 Northern Michigan for the title at the Bank One Badger Hockey Showdown at the Bradley Center.
Badgers defenseman Tom Gilbert scored his third goal of the season at 13 minutes, 42 seconds of the second period to break a 1-1 tie.
But the number of record was zero — as in the number of shots on goal Wisconsin allowed in the third period, despite a late Northern Michigan power-play chance and a sixth attacker for a few moments.
“That’s pretty amazing,” Wisconsin forward Brad Winchester said. “It’s a credit to the coaches and to the players for executing the system the way it should be. We clamped down when we had to.”
The Wildcats (10-7-1) attempted only six shots in the final 20 minutes. Of the three that were from below the faceoff dots, two were blocked and one missed the net.
“I hadn’t realized that because it’s a stat. What we were worried about was not letting the puck in the net,” Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said. “I guess by not giving up any shots, you’re going to do that. It’s a real good indication that we’re getting smarter late in games.”
Fatigue on the Northern Michigan bench contributed greatly to the Wildcats’ third-period shortfall. Despite playing the early semifinal game on Sunday, NMU visibly was out of gas as time ran down.
Coach Walt Kyle used his timeout with 8:21 remaining in the third period because his team had nothing left.
“We were really, really tired,” Kyle said. “You can say that and it’s not an excuse. Wisconsin was putting that much pressure on us. We expended a lot of energy last night, as they did. It’s tough right after break to come back, back to back, and they did it, they did a good job.”
Wisconsin (7-11), which beat Colgate 2-1 in the semifinals and has a winning streak for the first time since mid-October, got a charge out of seeing NMU use its timeout to catch its breath.
“I think it actually, emotionally, helped our team out when they took that timeout in the third period, because we could tell they were pretty gassed,” Winchester said. “It’s a credit to the players and the conditioning levels, [and] for the coaches to help us with that all year long.”
Wisconsin defenseman Brian Fahey was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. He added an assist Monday night to a goal he scored in the semifinals.
But more importantly, he was part of a defense that allowed two goals in two games at the tournament.
“This is the first weekend we really got rewarded for what we did system-wise,” Fahey said. “A lot of times we’d have good games but haven’t won the game. So this is kind of a good weekend for us to show that it does pay off. That’s just one more step in getting better.”
The Badgers hadn’t scored more than two goals in a game since a 5-3 loss to Denver on Nov. 2. Funk ended that by stealing the puck in the neutral zone and pushing it into an empty net with 33 seconds left.
That came almost half a game after Gilbert gave the Badgers a 2-1 lead by beating Northern Michigan goalie Craig Kowalski (30 saves) at 13:42 of the second period. Jake Heisler found him by himself in front of the net, and Gilbert flipped a backhand between the goalie’s pads.
Scott Kabotoff didn’t have to do much work in the third period, but he ended up with 15 saves.
Fahey was key in the game’s first big play. At the end of a Northern Michigan power play late in the first period, the defenseman sent a long pass out of his zone, catching UW forward Rene Bourque straight out of the penalty box.
Bourque, behind the Wildcats’ defense, snuck a shot between Kowalski’s pads, although the NMU goaltender got a piece of the puck before it crossed the goal line with 3.2 seconds on the clock.
“I knew he was coming out of the box,” Fahey said. “I didn’t make eye contact with him, but I knew he was down there so I just shoveled it down there and he happened to be right there.”
The Wildcats equalized just over two minutes into the second period when Andrew Contois, playing just his second game with the Wildcats after transferring from Lake Superior State, tapped in a rebound off the back boards from a miss by defenseman John Miller from the left point.
But Northern Michigan was crippled by the loss of second-line left wing and leading scorer Chris Gobert to a groin injury in the first period.
“He’s certainly our most dynamic offensive guy, and without him his line is close to useless,” Kyle said of the line that also features center Alex Sawruk and right wing Terry Harrison. “And they were — they were close to useless. We started bumping guys around. Wisconsin bottled us up, and I give them full credit. They did everything they had to do.”
Wisconsin, which missed out on the championship game of its tournament last season, got a tremendous building block for a second half it hopes will be markedly different from its 5-11 first half.
“Just winning has the kids buying into what we’re talking about — it sells itself,” said Eaves, the first-year UW coach who struggled to install a new system in the first half. “I think when you don’t win they look at you like, ‘You’re telling us to do this and it’s not working.’ We try to say you have to do it better.
“Now that they’re doing it better, the results are there. That winning reinforces what we’re trying to teach.”
All-tournament team: The all-tournament team included forwards Tyler Kolarik of Harvard, Bryce Cockburn of Northern Michigan and Winchester of Wisconsin; defensemen Noah Welch of Harvard and Fahey of Wisconsin; and NMU goaltender Kowalski.