ST. PAUL, Minn. — Hold onto the trophy: the NCAA championship hasn’t been vacated quite yet.
Thursday’s WCHA play-in game was the first of three the Wisconsin Badgers need to win this weekend to get a shot at defending their national title. And with a 4-0 victory over Michigan Tech at the Xcel Energy Center, UW completed the first leg of that journey, or, to apply head coach Mike Eaves’ analogy, they climbed the first rung of the ladder.
With the league’s top two defenses on display, a low-scoring affair was anticipated, but that only turned out to be half-true.
UW’s Brian Elliott, named second-team All-WCHA earlier in the day, made 26 saves in the shutout. The blanking was his fifth of the year and the 16th of his career, tying the WCHA record held by former Colorado College standout Jeff Sanger.
“Brian’s the backbone of this team,” said Andrew Joudrey, who scored the third Wisconsin goal. “Hopefully we can keep providing him some offense.”
“No one talks about Brian much this year,” said Eaves, “because his win total wasn’t what it was last year. He wins back-to-back [WCHA] goaltending titles and still didn’t get first-team.”
The Badgers wasted no time getting on the board, as Blake Geoffrion fired a shot that deflected off the stick of Michigan Tech’s Geoff Kinrade and into the net just 1:55 into the first period against a jittery Tech squad.
“I think it took us the first few minutes to get our feet under us,” said MTU captain Lars Helminen. “Unfortunately, they got a goal in those first few minutes.”
“There’s no substitute for experience,” said Michigan Tech head coach Jamie Russell. “They’re the defending national champions.”
There were few good scoring chances for the rest of the first period, which ended 1-0. Wisconsin, however, eliminated much of the drama with two goals early in the second.
First, freshman Michael Davies extended the UW advantage to 2-0 2:42 into the second. Collecting the puck behind the net, Davies came around front and while falling, banked his shot into the net for his 11th goal of the season.
Joudrey promptly gave the Badgers a three-goal lead with his ninth of the year, firing a shot through traffic that appeared to hit another MTU body halfway to the net and banked past netminder Michael-Lee Teslak at 4:14.
That gave the Badgers plenty of cushion against the WCHA’s seventh-ranked offense, meaning Elliott didn’t have to be spectacular. He was still plenty good, especially midway through the second period when he stopped Malcolm Gwilliam alone on the back door to keep MTU off the scoreboard.
Elliott also got a little help minutes later when Lars Helminen banged a shot off the left post, the second pipe of the game for the Huskies.
Tom Gorowsky capped off the scoring in the third period for Wisconsin, converting a centering pass from Ben Street to make it 4-0 and sealing the win.
For Michigan Tech, which was making its first Final Five appearance in over a decade, the experience was over all too soon.
“It’s a step forward for the program, but we’ve extremely disappointed we didn’t bring our ‘A’ game today,” said Russell.
All is not lost for Michigan Tech (18-17-5), which can still make the NCAA tournament with favorable outcomes over the next couple of days, though the odds are not particularly good.
“To tell you the truth, that’s the last thing I’m thinking about,” said Russell. “It’s probably a pretty outside shot for us to get a bid.”
Wisconsin (18-17-4) will next play Minnesota in the 7 p.m. CT semifinal Friday, with the victor moving on to the title game against the survivor of the earlier St. Cloud State-North Dakota semi. For Wisconsin, it’s the next rung on the ladder.
“We have to keep winning to keep playing,” said Joudrey. “That’s a great motivational tool to have.”