MADISON, Wis. — Welcome to the Kohl Center, home of the Denver Pioneers? It may sound crazy, but Denver has found themselves right at home in the Dairy State over the past decade.
After two physical periods of hockey, Denver center Mike Handza punched home a Pioneer rebound for the game-winning score, as the Pioneers won their sixth straight against the Badgers with a 2-0 decision Friday night. With the win, Denver now owns a 10-1-2 mark against the Badgers in the Kohl Center.
Even so, Friday’s game was a night of solid goaltending, premature celebrations and a game hinging on bounces, which, once again, didn’t go Wisconsin’s way.
“You work so hard through the whole period and when those chances don’t go in, you just have to stay with it,” UW captain Andrew Joudrey said. “I don’t think we’re there yet. I don’t think we have that mental toughness that you need to have. Pucks aren’t going to always bounce your way, but you need to stick with it.”
The puck bounced Denver’s way the whole night and it started with a blue-line wrister from defensivemen T.J. Fast that clanked off the right post. With the puck’s whereabouts unbeknownst to UW goalie Brian Elliott, Handza retrieved the rebound and slammed it home for the game winner early in the third. For Elliott, it was another unfortunate play that he never saw.
“I didn’t see the puck at all,” Elliott said. “I don’t know how that shot gets through. There’s not much you can do on that. That’s a good play by them and that’s some of the things we need to start doing.”
With the Badgers fighting desperately to get back into the game, it was another lucky skip of the puck, and lack of defensively awareness, that finished off the Badgers. With the puck bouncing to Denver’s Chris Butler, Butler passed the puck that weaved through three Badger defensivemen right to Brock Trotter, who iced the game with his third goal of the season.
“We definitely showed our rust with the week off,” Denver head coach George Gwozdecky said. “From an offensive standpoint, we weren’t very sharp and we had some great chances to gain a little bit of an edge in the first period with our power play. But, we got the bounces we needed to get [tonight].”
Even so, two of the unsung heroes for Denver tonight were defensivemen Julian Marcuzzi and Andy Thomas, who were in the right places at the right times. With the game scoreless in the second, UW’s Michael Davies took advantage of Fisher being out of place and had a wide open shot attempt on the wrap around. Out of nowhere, Marcuzzi poked the puck out of Davies’ control, going into an airborne dive in the process.
Thomas came up big in the third on a Wisconsin power play. With the Badgers trailing by one, Wisconsin set up a crossing pass that deflected right to Ben Street. With a wide open net in front of him, Street shots deflected off Thomas’ right skate into the corner and out of harm’s way. The save proved to be the turning point in the game with the play being filed under another case of Wisconsin not getting the timely goal.
“We’re not getting that timely goal,” UW head coach Mike Eaves said. “Poor Ben Street has the puck kick out to him that he can’t gather it in. If we score that goal, the crowd is into it and then maybe the tides and good fortunes begin to turn. These are things all teams go through. How are we going to solve this riddle right now and we’re going to solve it by everyone playing to their strengths and not trying to do too much.”
One of the more bizarre plays of the evening occurred in the first period when Denver’s Patrick Mullen thought he had beaten Elliott on a breakaway. Mullen thought the puck ricocheted off the crossbar and into the net while in actuality, the puck shot upward and back to the boards. To further complicate the situation, the linesman signaled a goal, complete with the siren and raucous chants from Wisconsin’s student section.
“I thought he scored, he came to the bench and I said, ‘Patrick, did it go in,’” Gwozdecky said. “He said, ‘I am not sure.’ I didn’t ask him any further because I looked up at the replay and I saw him raise his arms and you usually raise your arms when the puck is in the net.”
With Wisconsin having Hobey Baker finalist Brian Elliott in net, the Pioneers are one of the few teams in the WCHA that can adequately match Elliott’s stopping power with two different goalies. Senior Glenn Fisher was a force in net for the Pioneers, making countless remarkable saves in route to a 27 save night and his fourth win of the season. Wisconsin’s Elliott managed 30 in a great goaltending battle between the pipes.
“Glenn has played very well all year long and tonight was an example of that,” Gwozdecky said. “At times, you need to make your own breaks. . . . It just came down to one fortunate bounce that we got at the point. When you have two great goaltenders like that, it’s going to be a goofy bounce that’s going to be the difference.”
It still begs the question though, if Gwozdecky is going to attempt to locate some real estate in Wisconsin for his team, who seem to play their best hockey in Wisconsin’s capital, particularly the Kohl Center.
“Do I want to move here? [Expletive] no,” Gwozdecky said. “I don’t know what the reason is but I will tell you this. Every single game we play against these guys whether it is here or in Denver are tight, close, competitive games that usually come down to one little bounce or a play that’s going to make the difference.”
Denver goes for the series sweep in the Kohl Center, there home away from home, tomorrow night against the Badgers with the puck dropping at 7:07 CDT.