DENVER — In the first game of a series that looks to put either team in prime position for a battle for the WCHA regular-season title, the No. 3 Denver Pioneers (21-6-1, 16-4-1 WCHA) withstood two breakaway goals to defeat the No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers 4-3 and run their winning streak to eight games.
Sophomore goaltender Glenn Fisher had 23 saves to get the win, despite a fantastic effort by Wisconsin’s Robbie Earl, who scored two goals for the Badgers (20-8-1, 15-6-0 WCHA). Jon Foster (16-6-22) scored the eventual game winner for Denver near the end of the second period, but the Pioneers — despite going up 4-2 at one point — never looked entirely out of the woods.
“You’ve just got to be patient,” said DU forward Luke Fulghum of the Pioneers’ efforts to stifle a Wisconsin comeback. “It’s hectic but it’s part of the game.”
The first period featured Earl playing extremely well with and without the puck, and it was his good positioning that allowed him to score the game’s first goal at 1:48. After a shot from defenseman Josh Engel hit the crossbar and fell to the goal line behind Fisher, Earl swooped in to bat the bouncing puck in to put the Badgers ahead 1-0.
Wisconsin continued to throw pucks at Fisher from distances, looking to cash in on a rebound as Denver failed to clear out the slot at times. Fisher was up to the task on two great chances by the Badgers, keeping Wisconsin off the board.
Denver attempted to spread out the Badger defense and capitalized on the strategy for its first goal of the night. Pioneer defenseman Matt Carle received a pass from Andrew Thomas at the point in the Badger zone, then sent a cross-ice pass through traffic to forward Luke Fulghum, who tipped the puck past Bernd Brckler to tie the game at 1.
Wisconsin did an excellent job of not allowing the Pioneers second opportunities on rebounds, and continued to play a physical game along the boards. But it was a prolonged battle for the puck along the right-wing boards in the Wisconsin zone that led to Denver’s second goal.
DU forward Kevin Ulanski was fighting for the puck with two Badgers when he got a stick on the puck to send it to a waiting Brett Skinner at the blue line. Skinner made a move to the inside and unloaded a fierce slapper that beat Brckler at 11:03 of the second period.
“It was a young winger’s mistake,” said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves of the play that led to Skinner’s goal. “We’ve got some people playing great and some people who are not and we need everyone to play great.”
The Pioneers appeared to have the momentum going their way, with the Badgers failing to get any shots on goal during a 5-on-3 advantage. Their best chance was foiled when Wisconsin forward Ross Carlson fanned on a shot in front of an open DU net.
Still, Wisconsin was able to steal the momentum as time ran out in the first period. A deflected shot caromed past Denver’s blueliners to center ice, where a streaking Adam Burish tipped the puck forward on a breakaway and the Wisconsin captain beat Fisher with a nice backhand to even the score at 2-2 with only a second left in the first.
“I was disappointed. That’s a save any goalie wants to make,” Fisher (10-4-1) said. “[But] when you can respond to goals like that, you’ll have success.”
The opening minutes of the second period saw both goalies making big saves on potential tie-breaking shots. Minutes later, the Pioneers’ Paul Stastny grabbed a loose puck along the boards, drove in to Brckler’s right and put the puck in the net on the backhand after making a nifty move to get around Badger defenseman Joe Piskula.
“There’s no magic [to it],” Eaves said. “It was all about performance.”
With DU now up 3-2, the game’s intensity picked up as Denver pushed to get a two-goal lead. The Pioneers almost did just that when Ulanski broke in on Brckler, only to have the senior goalie make a brilliant pad save. But Brckler (29 saves) was unable to stop Denver’s Jon Foster on the next opportunity. Foster had grabbed the puck as it got through the legs of Engel along the left wing boards and snapped the puck past Brckler to put the Pioneers up by two.
“That’s how the night was for us,” Burish said. “We’d have two good shifts and one poor shift.”
Then, with the teams playing 4-on-4 for two minutes, the Badgers’ flair for the dramatic returned, once again on a great play by Earl. The California native took a pass from linemate Joe Pavelski and used a burst of speed to break in alone and deke to the forehand for his second goal of the night to put the Badgers within one, at 4-3.
“That’s how it usually is when you’re playing a team like Wisconsin,” said Fisher, who said DU head coach George Gwozdecky urged his players to come out calmer in the third period. “We went into the second intermission and [Gwozdecky] told us we’re a third-period team. We’ve been playing well in the third period all year.”
The third period began with the Pioneers outshooting Wisconsin 24-19, but soon Denver began to move to a strictly defensive game. Wisconsin still had life and put bodies in front of Fisher, almost scoring on a goalmouth scramble. Denver had trouble in its own end and players shifted around in an attempt to hold on to the lead. When all was said and done, the Pioneers weathered a final flurry and escaped with the 4-3 win.
“We couldn’t get the puck in because we didn’t take what was given to us,” Eaves said.
Burish echoed the feelings of his coach.
“Two games in a row now, we’ve lost a one-goal game,” said Burish (9-6-15). “The guys need to look themselves in the mirror and assess how they played.”
Denver and Wisconsin play the second game of the series Saturday night in Denver.