DENVER — In a hard-fought, defensive game, the Wisconsin Badgers defeated the Denver Pioneers 3-2 to go up 1-0 in their WCHA playoff series Friday.
“It wasn’t new territory for us,” said Badgers’ coach Mike Eaves. “You’d hope we’d be intelligent enough to take the lessons from our series and apply them.”
The game started with tight defense from both teams, which was no surprise given how much each team has struggled to score goals this season. Through the first five minutes, neither team was able to generate any shots. Both played physical defense, checking hard and keeping traffic from setting up in front of their goaltenders.
Around the midway point of the period, things started to open up offensively. Wisconsin had the first good chance, with Pioneer goalie Peter Mannino out of position and an empty net, but was unable to capitalize.
Pioneers’ senior J.D. Corbin had a great chance moments later, taking a pass and making a pretty move around Badger defender Jeff Likens to get alone in front, but goalie Brian Elliott made the stop.
Through the first 14 minutes, it seemed the period was headed towards a scoreless tie. However, the Badgers got on the board on a harmless-looking play at 14:33 when Joe Piskula picked up the puck along the left side boards and fired a wrist shot that hit Mannino’s left arm and trickled into the net.
Buoyed by the goal, the Badgers started to press more in the offensive zone, and their efforts were rewarded at 17:44. Ben Street won a draw back to Kyle Klubertanz on the left point, and he fired a shot that Mannino stopped, but nobody picked up Street as he moved through the slot and picked up the rebound.
Street’s backhand hit Mannino’s left pad and trickled through the five-hole, giving the Badgers the important two-goal lead going into the locker room.
“We didn’t start the game off as well as we should have,” said Corbin. “They got two goals up on us, and we came back from that, but obviously it’s a battle uphill.”
The second period has been the best period for the Pioneers all year, and Friday night was no different. Wisconsin had an early chance on a power play when Jack Skille stole the puck from Rhett Rakhshani after Rakhshani took too long to set up a clear. Skille walked in alone on Mannino, but fired his wrist shot wide left.
Shortly after that attempt, the Pioneers got on the board on a beautiful setup by Brock Trotter, the Pioneers’ leading scorer. Trotter raced down the right side boards and circled behind the net. As he came clear, he spied Ryan Dingle in the left circle and fed him a perfect pass. Dingle one-timed a slap shot by Elliott at 5:14, beating him glove side.
The Pioneers went on the power play only 30 seconds later, but their string of power-play futility continued as they were unable to tie it up.
“We got lazy tonight on the power play, lazy on the penalty kill,” said Corbin.
“Both teams did a good job on the penalty kill tonight,” said Eaves. “It was tough to get anything set up. They applied a lot of pressure, and it was one of those things where you really had to know what you were going to do with the puck.”
The Badgers continued to generate chances, but the Pioneers did a good job of keeping the shots to the outside and clearing any traffic from in front of Mannino.
Chris Butler almost tied the score midway through the period when he fired a wrist shot from the left point that skipped along the ice and hit the left post, but the puck came back out and Elliott smothered it.
Skille had an excellent chance to build on the lead as a penalty ended, breaking up the right side on a two-on-one, but Thomas blocked the passing lane and Mannino, who did a superb job of controlling his rebounds after the shaky first period, made the stop.
The Pioneers were finally rewarded for their hard work at 15:44 when Corbin fired a wrist shot from the left side boards. The puck was headed wide, but it hit Jake Dowell’s skate and beat Elliott past his left pad along the ice.
“I thought Denver came out and they raised their level in the second period,” said Eaves. “I thought we responded in the third. We competed better, won more battles and gave ourselves a chance.”
The third period had plenty of back-and-forth play, though the Pioneers had the better offensive chances for much of the period. Dingle twice found himself with the puck at the left post, but one shot was deflected wide, and Elliott stoned him on the second opportunity. On another play, Tom May fired a wrist shot from the slot that just went wide left.
A broken play proved made the difference late in the period, giving the Badgers the lead at 15:36. Pioneers forward Brian Gifford was unable to clear the zone from the right side boards, giving the Badgers a chance to set up. Michael Davies got off a wrist shot from the left circle that Mannino stopped, but the puck sat up for Dowell on the left post, and he lifted it in.
“The thing about our leaders is they step up to the plate,” said Eaves of Dowell. “Goaltending, special teams, and your best players have to be your best players.”
“Every game is a must-have,” said Corbin. “It slipped through our fingers tonight. We had a couple of breakdowns and they capitalized on it. We have to use our speed tomorrow (to create offense). We didn’t use our speed tonight.”
The teams resume the series Saturday night in Denver at 7 p.m. MT.
“The job is not done,” said Eaves. “It’s a step in the right direction. That’s our mentality; it’s one step. We’ve taken one step, it’s a huge step, but every time you try to close out a series, that’s the hardest game, whether it’s two out of three or three out of five.”