ASHWAUBENON, Wis. — It was only fitting that the top-ranked Wisconsin Badgers began their title defense in the arena that propelled them to the Frozen Four just six months ago.
Also apropos was that the Badgers won their season opener in the same fashion they won their sixth national championship last season: hard-nosed defense and solid goaltending.
Led by senior goalie and reigning Hobey Baker finalist Brian Elliott and freshman Michael Davies’ two goals, the Badgers won their fourth consecutive season opener by beating the No.19 Northern Michigan Wildcats 3-0 in Green Bay.
One of the biggest questions plaguing the defending national champions was which Badgers were going to fill the scoring void the quickest. With Wisconsin losing three career100 point scorers and 57 percent of their offense from last season, the Badgers were hoping that one of the nine new incoming freshmen would fill that hole.
The Badgers only had to wait until the second period to find their answer.
Just two minutes into the middle frame, junior Matt Ford took a shot from the left face-off circle that was initially stopped by NMU goalie Bill Zaniboni. However, Zaniboni was unable to corral the rebound and it popped free from the senior netminder. The loose puck found its way to Davies, who rifled the puck passed Zaniboni for his first collegiate goal and a 1-0 Wisconsin lead.
That was more than enough for Elliott, who looked as comfortable between the pipes as he did in the NCAA title game. He found himself in very few tough situations on Friday night, ending the evening with 23 saves and his 12th career shutout.
“[Our] team itself didn’t give us a lot of primed chances and when we sent him, they got him,” NMU head coach Walt Kyle said. “Elliott is a real steady influence on their team. You can tell that their veteran guys took charge and they play like they know the guy behind him is going to stop the puck.”
Just to be sure, Wisconsin’s inexperienced offense felt it necessary to give their goalie some added insurance and, once again, it was Wisconsin’s third line that did the damage.
Just two minutes into the third on a delayed NMU penalty, junior defenseman Davis Drewiski rifled the puck top shelf past Zaniboni to increase the Wisconsin lead to 2-0. Davies and Wisconsin’s third line would cap the game’s scoring later in the period by beating the Wildcats goalie on the left side for his second tally of the night.
“I’ve never start any of my seasons at the next level by scoring two goals,” Davies said. “I thought it would take me a couple games to get a point or two, but this is great to contribute.”
While the Badger youth made the tallies on the scoreboard, it was Wisconsin’s inexperienced veterans that helped set up the night’s offense. Junior Matt Ford and sophomore Tom Gorowsky both assisted on all three Wisconsin goals. While both players saw minimal time on the ice last season, both also showed that they are ready to step up and fill the shoes of their predecessors.
“I got some lucky bounces there in certain opportunities that went in and there were other opportunities that didn’t,” Gorowsky said. “I’m just happy and fortunate to get some points tonight.”
With Wisconsin losing high-flying forwards Robbie Earl and Joe Pavelski to the NHL, two-thirds of their top line a season ago, the Badgers rearranged all four of their lines before the season in hopes of catching a spark. Tonight, it was the Badgers third line Ford, Gorowsky and Davies that accounted for all the game’s scoring.
“That whole line worked very well together,” Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves said. “It’s not just one guy. [Davies] finished a couple of really nice plays. They supported each other better than any other line we had tonight.”
With tonight’s game being the opener for both schools, both teams had plenty of things to look at to try and sew up before conference play begins. For Northern Michigan, the real concern for head coach Walt Kyle was getting his younger player the experience they need to compete in the always rugged CCHA.
“We have a number of guys that are in the lineup tonight, not just freshmen, that played less than eight games last year,” Kyle said. “Those guys are going to have to get used to [the pace of the game]. That was real college hockey tonight and that was a real college hockey team tonight.”
For the Badgers and Mike Eaves, it was continuing to build on the foundation of Elliott and the solid defense boasted by the Badgers. Unlike Northern Michigan, however, the Badgers now have a win to build on.
“The first period was a little rackety and we looked tired at times, but you got to blow out the fumes and get back in the game. We’ll go from her and build and hopefully be better tomorrow night,” Eaves said.
Wisconsin and Northern Michigan wrap up their two game series tomorrow at 7:05 CDT in Green Bay.