MADISON, Wis. — Friday night the Pioneers said they felt they had made a statement. Saturday night, they helped blow the race for the MacNaughton Cup wide open again.
Ryan Dingle scored twice and Peter Mannino made 25 saves as Denver capped off a weekend sweep of No. 1 Wisconsin with a 4-2 win in front of 15,237 fans at the Kohl Center.
What the Badgers couldn’t do in 60 minutes on Friday night — score on the Pioneers — they did in a mere 52 seconds Saturday. But it did not matter.
Denver scored three unanswered goals after Wisconsin scored early and DU staved off a potential UW comeback in the third period to move within four points of first place in the WCHA.
“To not really do anything the first half of the season (was) kind of tough,” Dingle said. “This is the start of a good thing. Hopefully we can continue it on.”
While the loss hurt the Badgers stronghold on the WCHA lead, head coach Mike Eaves maintained a positive attitude about the weekend.
“In some areas we were schooled,” Eaves said. “(But) we will be a better team in the long run because of this weekend.”
A minute and a half after Robbie Earl brought the Badgers back within a goal at 3-2 late in the third period, UW center Andrew Joudrey took a boarding penalty, one of many calls that frustrated the Wisconsin bench.
Of course, Denver capitalized, as Dingle scored his second of the night and the third power-play goal of the night for the Pioneers to end any thoughts of a Wisconsin comeback.
“I was telling the boys I’ve never been more nervous in my life than last night, not being able to have a hand in any of it,” Dingle, who sat out due to a game disqualification last Saturday, said. “I just wanted to come in and help them out tonight. It feels good.”
In all fairness, the Pioneers deserved the victory either way as the two-time defending champions outworked and outhustled the nation’s top team for the second night in a row.
The only time things really looked good for the Badgers were in the opening minutes of the game.
Less than a minute after the puck dropped, an attempted pass from Burish slid through the crease right to Earl, who knocked home the puck to give the Badgers a 1-0 lead at 0:52.
But while Wisconsin stole some early momentum, putting the first six shots on net in the game, it was a resilient Denver team which did not take long to come back.
At 7:37, with the Pioneers on the power play, Gabe Gauthier threw a shot on through traffic from above the left circle that found its way all the way to the goal past an unsuspecting Shane Connelly to tie the game at one goal apiece.
Less than four minutes later, a gritty play by Dingle made UW defenseman Jeff Likens look silly and gave Denver the lead.
Likens attempted to rub Dingle off the puck as he skated into the Pioneers’ offensive zone, but the sophomore winger skated right by and beat Connelly with a top-shelf shot from the left circle, and Denver skated into the first intermission with a 2-1 advantage.
The Pioneers padded their lead in the second period as Geoff Paukovich got his second goal of the year and second in as many games to make it 3-1, a lead which they held well into the third period.
Earl gave the sellout home crowd some hope with less than seven minutes left in the game with his second of the night in a period in which the numbers made it look like the Badgers dominated but did not tell the real story.
Earl’s brought the Badgers within one and Wisconsin outshot Denver 10-3 in the third, but it just never felt like the Pioneers would relinquish the lead. And Dingle’s second goal of the night iced the game.
The win improved the Pioneers’ record at the Kohl Center to 9-1-2.
“It’s an unbelievable place to play,” Dingle said. “I can imagine playing for the team, but playing against the team is something special too.”
Denver’s power play finished 3-for-7 on the night, while the Badgers struggled on the man advantage. Though Earl’s second goal was on the power play, the Badgers finished 1-for-6 on the night and had just two total shots on their five power plays in the first two periods.
It was clear that, while Connelly played well in relief, the fact that he was behind the Badgers changed their mentality as they finished the weekend with just two goals, 10 less than their series a week ago.
“When you equate it to another sport, it’d be like losing your starting quarterback or one of your starting pitchers,” Eaves said. “It’s a pretty big chunk of what we do.”
“If you’re losing someone, you’re going to have some doubt in your head, and we took advantage of that,” Dingle said.
In the other locker room, the Pioneers know once again what it feels like to be a championship-caliber team. Their season has been one of ups and downs, but this is as “up” as it has been.
“It was huge. We talked about pretty much not having any momentum coming into this weekend and we needed to do something,” Dingle said. “I think this is the weekend that showed a lot of character from our team. It was great to see our team come together like this.”
With Minnesota’s sweep of Colorado College, both the Gophers and Pioneers remain tied for second, but the ground they have to cover has been cut in half.
“Funny how that changes in a week, isn’t it?” Eaves said.
Things could really get crazy when Minnesota comes to Madison next weekend to face the presumably Elliott-less Badgers. Denver makes the trek to Anchorage.