MADISON, Wis. — It would be hard to find a game stranger than Friday’s WCHA first-round matchup between Wisconsin and Alaska-Anchorage. The game featured four different goalies, four different referees, two-goal leads for each team and eventually a 5-4 victory for the Badgers.
It was not a pretty game. It was a game of bounces, of misplayed pucks and of struggling goalies. But in the end, the Badgers found a way to win.
“[Hockey] is a game of mental mistakes, and it’s usually the team that makes the fewest mental mistakes that is going to win,” Anchorage coach John Hill said.
It took the Badgers just 46 seconds to jump on top of the Seawolves on their first shot of the night. Sophomore Robbie Earl set up the play before dropping the puck off to Josh Engel. The freshman defenseman found fellow rookie Joe Pavelski in front of the net and he pushed the puck through senior goalie John DeCaro’s legs.
Pavelski notched his second goal of the night less than four minutes later to put the Badgers up by two. Junior defenseman Tom Gilbert blasted a shot from out towards the blue line and Pavelski was in front of the net to redirect the puck past DeCaro.
The netminder was immediately pulled in favor of senior Nathan Lawson, finishing DeCaro’s night with two goals allowed and two saves in just 4:30 of action. Lawson made 45 saves in relief as the Badgers outshot Anchorage 52-27.
Lawson and the Seawolves kept the Badgers out of the net for the remainder of the period, although the Badgers controlled play and momentum throughout. Lawson was forced to make 13 saves as Wisconsin outshot Anchorage 15-7.
The Badgers kept control through the second period, outshooting the Seawolves 16-10, but handed them two goals along the way.
At 7:05 of the period, Wisconsin goalie Bernd Bruckler left the net to play the puck, but lost control of it and the puck went into the net, cutting the deficit in half.
Another misplay just four minutes later by the Badgers tied the game at 2. As the Badgers controlled the puck in their defensive zone, captain Adam Burish attempted a pass, but turned the puck over to Justin Johnson.
Bruckler stopped Johnson’s shot, but left the rebound off to Martin Stuchlik, who netted the puck for Anchorage.
The game’s strangeness continued in the second as well, when linesman Ed Moberg was injured and had to be replaced by Karl Olm during the frame.
After two periods, Wisconsin had outshot Anchorage 33-17, yet the game was yet to be decided.
Things got worse quickly for the Badgers in the third period. Stuchlik got his second goal just 1:29 of the third on an Anchorage power play.
But the fourth goal epitomized a strange game.
With the Badgers on the power play, Brent McMann cleared the puck down the ice towards Bruckler. Bruckler went to play the puck with his stick, but the puck bounced over it. He dove back at it, but it was too late, and the Seawolves went up 4-2.
Hill described it as the biggest fluke goal you may ever see.
Bruckler headed to the bench in favor of sophomore Brian Elliott, who stopped seven pucks over the final 17 minutes.
But the game was far from over. Little more than two minutes later, the Badgers began their comeback.
“We were down 3-1 in Denver with 11 minutes to go and we got it done,” Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said. “An experience like that … they know that they can do it. So they relied on experience.”
“The first thing I did was look at [Earl] and [Pavelski] and I gave them a nod,” Burish said. “They know what that nod means: ‘Let’s get this done.’”
At 5:01 of the period, Pavelski passed the puck from behind and right of Lawson through the slot to Earl. Earl found the back of the net with a wide-open one-timer.
“[Bruckler]‘s bailed us out, in the three years I’ve been here, dozens of times. It was time for us to pay him back. We’ve had our off nights and he’s helped us out and tonight we helped him out,” Burish said.
He scored again at the 13:11 mark off a faceoff. A Seawolf defender did not stick with him off the faceoff, and Joe Piskula found Earl to Lawson’s left. Earl whiffed his first shot attempt, but got a second crack and put it top-shelf to tie the game at 4.
“We just got back to the things we were doing in the first period,” Earl said. “The reason why we didn’t feel panic is because we knew what we needed to do. But to be a great team you have to play like that for 60 minutes.”
“What disappointed me is that we made mental mistakes,” Hill said. “There was a lot of time on the clock when it was 4-2. We knew they were going to keep coming. Our guys played hard and they wanted to win, but we made mental mistakes and they capitalized on them.”
It looked as though the Badgers had taken the lead exactly one minute later with a crowd at the net. Burish whacked at a loose puck and raised his arms in celebration, but the referee signaled no goal.
But Burish got another chance to celebrate with 3:20 remaining. He skated the puck into the left side of the zone and attempted to pass it towards the slot. The puck deflected off a Seawolf defenseman and lay just above the crease. Burish followed his pass in and backhanded the lifeless puck into the net for the game-winning goal.
Earl and Pavelski, the Badgers’ leading scorers, finished the game with a total of four goals and three assists.
“They had their A-game going tonight. They had jump,” Eaves said.
Feelings afterward were mixed. For Eaves and Wisconsin, there was the joy of winning, but concern for the way things played out.
For Hill and Anchorage, they had lost, but there was hope for the rest of the weekend.
For Bruckler, who could not remember being pulled from a game as a Badger, there was a lack of his usual confidence.
“The boys did a tremendous job coming back,” Bruckler said. “I’ve obviously got to clear my head and get ready to play again. There’s a lot of hockey left.”
“He’s struggling, that’s the bottom line,” Eaves said, adding that Elliott would get the start against Lawson in Saturday’s game.
The two teams will go at it again Saturday as Wisconsin looks for the sweep and its first trip to the WCHA Final Five since 2002.