MADISON, Wis. — St. Lawrence and Wisconsin both boast groups of capable veteran players and the teams looked to them to carry the load early in the season. But in Friday’s season opener, it was the night of the rookies as the Badgers and Saints got two goals apiece from their freshmen.
For the Badgers, rookie Ben Street shifted the momentum in their direction and fellow freshman Jack Skille came through in the end with an overtime goal that lifted UW to a 3-2 victory.
It was a rugged contest featuring hard hits and a tempo characteristic of two teams in mid-season form. Gritty play usually brings gritty goals — not necessarily the prettiest of chances — but the teams took advantage of what was given. The game-winner was a fine example.
Ross Carlson took the puck off the boards in the Badgers’ defensive zone and passed the puck up to Skille in the neutral zone.
The freshman, who played on the National Team Developmental Program last year, took the puck into the center of the offensive zone, shifted back outside and simply slid the puck at, and past, St. Lawrence goalie Kevin Ackley.
“I tried making a move to the middle and I got tripped up, and I got lucky and it squirted in,” Skille said.
“Jack just went to the net, made a play at the net,” UW head coach Mike Eaves said. “You could call it a fluky goal, but it’s the ability to go to the net and good things will happen.”
It was a tough ending for a St. Lawrence team which left everything it had on the Kohl Center ice in front of 10,398 fans.
“Obviously it’s tough to lose in overtime, and it’s kind of a fluky goal there too, but I was really proud of our effort,” St. Lawrence head coach Joe Marsh said.
St. Lawrence never backed down to the No. 10 team in the nation. After the Badgers dictated the opening minutes of the game, the Saints rose to the challenge and fought hard until the final seconds.
“On the first four shifts, I thought we were really back on our heals,” Marsh said. “It was nice to see that turnaround.”
Credit Street for bringing the Badgers back into the game after facing a 2-0 deficit late in the second period.
The game could have gone either way through the first two periods, but it was the Saints who capitalized on being in the right place at the right time.
They came up with the power-play goal late in the first period to take the 1-0 lead into the locker room when freshman Kevin DeVergilio had a rebound bounce right to him in front of the net for an easy goal.
At 16:37 of the second period, St. Lawrence doubled its lead to 2-0 with a goal from another rookie.
Mark Wallmann threw a shot towards the net from outside of the left circle and this time Brock McBride, camped out in front of the net, got his stick on the puck to redirect it past Elliott.
But Street responded to kill the Saints’ momentum a little more than a minute later.
Robbie Earl found Street in the right circle and the freshman took a simple shot, scoring over the glove of Ackley to cut the deficit in half and light a fire under the Badgers.
“For me, when I was on the bench watching that play, it really lifted me up,” Skille said. “Obviously, [the Saints had] a two-goal lead — the worst lead in hockey — that gives us the momentum. That was a huge goal for us.”
Less than seven minutes into the final period, Earl — known for his timely goals — came through once again for Wisconsin on the power play.
Tom Gilbert passed the puck through the zone to Earl, who wound up to take a one-timer, but the puck took an awkward bounce, and he was forced to corral it. It turned out to be a lucky break as he fired a wrister from the top of the right circle that found its way through Ackley’s legs.
It wasn’t the prettiest of his goals, but last year’s leading goal-scorer for UW continues to find a way at the most important times.
“I think, in crunch time, that’s when I come alive,” Earl said. “I find a way to get it done. In the third period I tend to step it up and do what I’ve got to do.”
That goal sent the game to overtime and gave Skille, who played high school hockey just minutes outside of Madison, a chance to be the hero in his first game in a Badger uniform.
“It’s obviously different than playing [in high school],” Skille said. “It was just a dream come true, in a way.”
Elliott looked good in his first start as Wisconsin’s number-one goaltender, making 23 saves while allowing the two goals — neither of which he had a good chance at stopping.
“I thought he was really controlled in his movement in the crease,” Eaves said. “I thought it was an excellent performance.”
On the other end, Ackley, a graduate student who was forced to take a medical redshirt a year ago, looked solid in his first game back between the pipes as well.
“He played a great game,” Marsh said. “One thing about him is he’s a pretty level-headed guy. I think deep down he’s probably going to be pretty happy to get the game under his belt and play as well as he did.”
But in the end, it was the night of the freshman coming through.
“They’re trying to show Coach that they’re supposed to be in the lineup every night,” Earl said. “They put some timely goals in.”
It will be interesting to see how much energy these teams — especially the young freshmen — have left after an up-tempo overtime game to begin the season. The two face off in the series finale Saturday night.