DENVER — Fans of both the No. 2 Denver Pioneers AND the No. 17 Wisconsin Badgers could be forgiven for wondering if the circus came to town this weekend. Hours before the puck dropped Saturday night at Magness Arena, the WCHA issued a press release that admitted referee Randy Schmidt made a mistake in disallowing Wisconsin’s last second tying goal in Friday night’s game. The question then, was how would the teams react.
The Badgers were the team that responded, routing the Pioneers 7-2 behind a balanced offensive attack. Nevertheless, the game saw numerous controversial plays.
“I think the emotions could run the gamut, starting with anger, frustration, a heavy cloud, but what we addressed in our meeting today was in life, you can’t know why things happen, and we looked at this as this as an opportunity for this event of last night to perhaps be a watershed moment for us in terms of our ability to come together as a group,” said Badgers’ coach Mike Eaves. “Based on that, we turned our energy to controlling the things that we could control, and that was about playing the game today, and they responded with spades.”
The Badgers came out strong, trying to establish a physical presence, but it was the Pioneers who struck first. Anthony Maiani, skating low on the right side boards, fed a perfect pass to Tyler Ruegsegger in the slot. Ruegsegger, who had gotten in alone behind the Badgers’ defense, roofed the puck top corner glove side at 4:19.
“We always try to play night to night,” said Pioneers’ captain Andrew Thomas. “They just out-battled us, they won all the loose pucks, and some bounces went their way, so credit to Wisconsin.”
The Badgers quickly struck back, preventing the Pioneers from building on that momentum. The Badgers’ forecheck created relentless pressure on the Pioneers’ defense, keeping them pinned in their zone. At the end of a long shift, Kyle Klubertanz fired a shot from the point that Peter Mannino got the pad on, but Patrick Johnson was standing by the left post and picked up the puck and lifted it into the net at 5:31.
“We good energy,” said Eaves. “Even when they scored, we came out and you could tell we hadn’t dropped a notch. The next shift was a very high energy shift. To get the goal though, gave us another dose of energy and we hadn’t been getting that before.”
Wisconsin took the lead on what appeared to be a makeup call by Schmidt, who was inexplicably the ref for tonight’s game, something both coaches felt was unfair to Schmidt.
“It puts him in a real tough spot,” said Eaves. “It’s a real difficult situation to cone back and referee a game after the league and he admittedly didn’t handle a situation correctly. I don’t think it was fair to him, I don’t think it was fair to the teams, and it’s something our league needs to look at and have a protocol for.”
Peter Mannino made the stop on a shot by Podge Turnbull from just inside the right side blue line, but wasn’t able to quite cover the puck, which lay near his left arm as he lay on the ice in the crease. The referees, all behind the play, blew the whistle, thinking Mannino had covered the puck, but Turnbull got to the puck and knocked it in at 13:44. After a lengthy review, Schmidt called it a goal, although in the arena you could hear the whistle blow before Turnbull got to the rebound.
“I think our league office put that official in a no-win situation, especially having released that press release apologizing for his error and then putting him right back into the spotlight tonight, that’s just not fair,” said Pioneers’ coach George Gwozdecky. “I apologize on behalf of our league office for that; I was shocked to see that.
“I was told they wouldn’t make a change. I don’t want to take anything away from Wisconsin. There might have been a small little factor in that goal. I think everybody (heard a whistle). That’s neither here nor there. To put an official in that position is not fair. Good teams respond to challenges like that; Wisconsin responded.”
Kyle Turris made it 3-1 at 15:14. Chris Nutini had the puck in the slot, but made a horrible turnover to Johnson in the left side circle. Johnson passed it to Turris on the right side of the net, and Turris had an open net to score on at 15:14.
Ben Street almost made it 4-1 in the final minute, ringing a shot off the left post.
“Trying to get the puck back from them in our own zone was a comedy of errors,” said Gwozdecky. “Our coverage in our defensive zone was something to behold. Our arrival time, our positional discipline, was very poor. You had to chuckle.”
The second period quickly dissolved into a penalty fest. Badgers’ goalie Shane Connelly made a big stop on Ruegsegger early in the period when Ruegsegger fired a shot from the top of the slot. Connelly then robbed Tyler Bozak’s attempt from the right side circle.
Ben Street made it 4-1 at 14:17. Taking a pass from Klubertanz, Street cut to his left across the slot, got Mannino to commit, took an extra step and slid the puck into the open net.
Michael Davies made it 5-1 at 17:55 on a strange goal. Davies had the puck near the goal line at the left side corner and lifted a backhand towards the net, trying to catch Mannino out of position. As Mannino moved back to cover the shot, it hit him in the face mask and bounced in.
That was all on the night for Mannino, as Gwozdecky put in freshman goaltender Marc Cheverie.
At 19:26, a melee erupted in the Pioneers’ end in the left corner. When it was over, Schmidt sent almost every player on the ice to the box, ultimately giving the Badgers a power play, calling Pioneers’ forward Dustin Jackson for the extra penalty on unsportsmanlike conduct.
Early in the third period, the Pioneers scored a power-play goal that was reviewed by Schmidt. Butler lifted a wrist shot from the left point that was deflected in front by Kyle Ostrow. Ostrow’s stick appeared to be above the crossbar when it hit the puck, but Schmidt ruled it a goal and gave the goal to Butler at 3:13.
Connelly was called upon to make one more big save, a blocker stop on a laser by Tom May from the left circle. After that, the Badgers put the game away.
First, Ryan McDonagh scored a beautiful goal. Matt Ford carried the puck into the Pioneers’ zone along the left side boards and passed to McDonagh in the top of the slot, and McDonagh fired a wrist shot along the ice past Cheverie stick side.
Turris added a shorthanded breakaway goal at 17:14, picking up the puck behind the Pioneers’ defense and beating Cheverie five-hole.
“I believe this might be the best thing that could have happened to us,” said Gwozdecky. “We weren’t good enough tonight. I think there are times in a season, especially for the kind of inexperienced, youthful team that we have, that you need to get an awakening call to realize that we’re going to get everbody’s ‘A’ game. We have to now adjust our preparation and adjust our emotional level and how we respond to these challenges. These are learning experiences.”