DENVER — In another closely-contested game, the Wisconsin Badgers rode an outstanding performance from Brian Elliott in goal to a 2-1 series-clinching victory over the Denver Pioneers, advancing to the Final Five in St. Paul.
“One of Brian’s strengths is his ability to refocus. There’s no secret that one of the reasons that we are here and one of the reasons we were successful this weekend is the play of Brian Elliott, and he’ll tell you that it’s the play of the people in front of him in terms of blocking out and taking away second and third shots. I don’t know if he had to make a big save down the stretch, but he was solid and the guys made good plays in front of him,” said Badgers coach Mike Eaves.
Saturday’s first period was a virtual carbon copy of Friday’s. Wisconsin used its size and speed to pin the Pioneers in their end and generate stronger offensive chances, though the Pioneers had the occasional good chance. Brian Gifford had a good opportunity early, breaking in on a two-on-one, but his shot hit Elliott’s glove and went wide.
“One of our foundation battle cries throughout our tenure here has been great start,” said Eaves. “Stats tell you that when you’re the first to score a goal, often that leads to a victory. Getting a great start was important for this weekend for sure; it proved its worth again.”
The Badgers again got the first tally, as the Pioneers had difficulty clearing players from in front of goalie Glenn Fisher. Jack Skille took a pass from Jeff Likens and skated deep into the offensive zone along the right side boards, letting fly with a high wrist shot from near the goal line that handcuffed Fisher. Fisher made the initial save with his left shoulder, but the rebound sat up in front. Ben Street had the first crack at it, but Keith Seabrook lifted his stick. No one picked up Andrew Joudrey coming down the slot however, and Joudrey banged in the rebound at 10:48.
Rattled by the goal, the Pioneers began to play sloppily in their zone, committing too many turnovers in an attempt to force plays that weren’t there. Less than a minute after the goal, Davis Drewiske almost made it 2-0 when his shot from the slot deflected off the left post.
The power play continued to be a problem area for the Pioneers, who went 0-for-5 in Friday’s game on the power play. At 14:14, Matthew Ford was called for hooking, and the Pioneers went on the power play. They set up well in the zone, but passed around the perimeter too often and were unable to get traffic in front of Elliott.
Trying to get the puck deeper in the zone, the Pioneers turned the puck over and it squirted into the neutral zone, leading to a two-on-one. Ross Carlson carried the puck in along the left side and held onto it long enough to force Chris Butler to fall on his stomach to try to block the pass, but Carlson lifted the pass over Butler to Andy Brandt coming down the right side slot, and Brandt tipped the pass into the open net at 15:27, giving the Badgers a two-goal lead heading into the locker room. The Badgers outshot the Pioneers 16-11 in the period.
For the first half of the second period, it seemed both teams were in a holding pattern. Neither team generated much offense. Fisher robbed Skille with a beautiful glove save when Skille rifled a slap shot towards the top right corner, but otherwise both teams had trouble setting up.
Around the 12-minute mark, the Pioneers finally woke up and put sustained pressure on the Badgers, forechecking very effectively. After Badger junior Josh Engel turned the puck over on an attempted clear near the left boards, Andrew Thomas fired a wrist shot that led to a wild scramble in front of the net and turned Elliott around. Rhett Rakshani picked the puck up in the left circle and, with Elliott still out of position, fired it home at 8:27.
Buoyed by the goal, the Pioneers finally began playing with the desperation they should have had all weekend. Tyler Ruegsegger and Brock Trotter were particularly effective. Elliott robbed Ruegsegger on a shot from the middle of the left circle, and Trotter deflected Seabrook’s shot from the point just wide.
In the last minute of the period, the Pioneers got a power play and finally started to set up well and get traffic in front of Elliott, but they were unable to get the tying goal.
“I think both units were very good on the penalty kill,” said Eaves. “In a small rink like this, if you work as a unit of four, and you take away time and space and you’re not precise in how you move the puck, you’re going to have issues, and I think both power plays had issues this weekend because the penalty kill was very effective at taking away time and space.”
The third period was the most open of the series, featuring lots of back and forth play. Tom Gorowsky almost gave the Badgers back the two goal lead early when Fisher made an uncharacteristic defensive lapse, skating out of his net to the grab the puck and throw it behind the net, only to have it picked off and passed out front to Gorowsky, who had an open net to shoot at as Fisher frantically dived back towards the net. However, Gorowsky hit the right post with his shot.
Shortly after that, Ryan Dingle sprung Trotter on a breakaway with a perfect pass. Trotter tried to deke right and get the puck through the five hole, but Elliott kept the left pad down and made the save.
“There was pucks bouncing, open nets, a breakaway,” said Eaves. “It was frantic at times for sure, and sometimes that’s what you get at this time of year when so much is on the line.”
Elliott was the story of the game. Every time the Pioneers got an opportunity, Elliott was in perfect position, making the big saves to preserve the win.
“Wisconsin played a smart, smart series,” said Pioneers’ coach George Gwozdecky. “Brian Elliott was terrific tonight. We played hard, performed better, but Elliott was the difference. We had our leading scorer with the puck on his stick twice in scoring situations in the third period, and one time Elliott beat him and the other time he just missed the net.”
“We’re fighting for our tournament lives,” said Eaves. “This is one step for us, so we were successful in this step we’ll go into St. Paul and we need to take that next step to.”