MADISON, Wis. — Seeing both No. 3 seeds (Clarkson, Michigan State) pull the upset in Friday’s regional action, No. 17 Wisconsin had found something positive to grasp before playing fourth-ranked and conference rival Denver, a team that had gone 11-1-2 all-time against Wisconsin in the Kohl Center.
With the Badgers going 1-3-1 in their last five games and barely sneaking into the NCAA tournament field, combined with the Pioneers fresh off winning their 15th WCHA playoff championship, it looked like another hotly-contested matchup between Denver and North Dakota set for the Sunday docket.
But Wisconsin, wearing its red road jerseys and playing in front of a partisan Badger crowd, proved, at least for one night, that it belonged among the nation’s 16 best teams.
Ignited by sophomore forward Michael Davies’ two goals and junior Shane Connelly’s 30 saves, Wisconsin broke its Denver hex and moved one step closer to its second Frozen Four in the last three years, besting second-seeded Denver, 6-2, Saturday night.
Wisconsin will face the region’s top seed, North Dakota (27-10-4), at 6 p.m. CT Sunday night.
“We’ve heard it all week from the press and from around the rink that we did not deserve to be here,” Davies said. “We take that and motivate us to go out and play hockey because we have nothing to lose, because people doubt us anyway. We’re trying to prove people wrong.”
Left teetering for the last two weeks, hoping for a second chance to redeem itself after a season of bad bounces, streaking play and growing pains, Wisconsin (16-16-7) made sure its second life did not go by the wayside.
Showing no signs of rust despite playing its first game since March 15, UW’s energy was contagious, its blocking was superlative, the penalty kill was superior and the breaks finally went its way, breaks that constantly evaded the Badgers throughout the regular season.
“Our concern going into the game tonight was the rest factor in terms if we could get our legs and bodies going at a tempo that would allow us to get off to a good start,” UW coach Mike Eaves said “This past week we tried to change our practice to give us a little different look. I felt that the first 10 minutes tonight we did a pretty good job of playing in tempo.”
All four of Wisconsin’s goals Saturday night were a product of players playing in that all-important tempo and the puck being in the right place at the right time.
With its top line on the ice, Wisconsin’s Blake Geoffrion raced with the puck into the Denver zone. Wrapping around the net, Geoffrion sent a pass to defenseman Jamie McBain, who fired an uncontested shot above the faceoff circle. The puck caromed off Mannino’s pad and right to a fortuitously-placed Michael Davies, who banged home the wide-open net for UW’s first goal.
Continuing with the reversal of fortunes, the Badgers’ second-period tally was a product of more stellar positioning and more UW breaks. Senior defenseman Josh Engel ripped a shot from the point that McBain, camped right out in front of the Denver net, got a stick on and deflected over Denver goalie Peter Mannino’s outstretched glove to double the Wisconsin lead.
“It’s always good when you get a lead,” said McBain, as the Badgers improved to 11-3 when they score first. “It makes the game a little easier, you’re not running around as much and you don’t have to force as many things. You can’t sit back but it gives you confidence to keep things simple.”
After Denver (26-14-1) cut the lead in half late in second period on a beautiful shot fake by Dustin Jackson (he faked low, causing Connelly to bite, and shot high), the sign of lady luck could be seen back on the Badgers’ shoulders.
After Wisconsin won one of its 40 faceoffs on the day, the puck found its way onto the stick of Cody Goloubef. While his one-timer hit the right post, the rebound bounced off the post, off Mannino’s backside and then tucked itself inside the left post.
It was cruel irony for Denver, as the Pioneers missed four solid scoring chances Saturday night by firing four pucks off the post, including one on a wide-open net when Tyler Ruegsegger clanked one off the elbow of the crossbar that could have impacted the outcome.
“It’s funny how this game works at times,” Denver coach George Gwozdecky said. “It’s fractions of an inch. We had our chances. We had a number of great opportunities to score and missed or shot and hit posts.”
It was all downhill after that. UW’s John Mitchell scored on a breakaway, followed closely by Davies scoring his second goal of the night (also on a breakaway) and capped by senior captain Davis Drewiske registering an empty-netter with just over three minutes remaining.
“We thought we could keep going at that point,” senior Tom May said after his third-period goal cut the Badger lead to two. “There was still a lot of time left (8:13) and things could happen. We had a feeling on the bench that we could come back but then they got a couple more goals and it began to be a little tougher to keep that optimism.”
But combine the luck, the four third-period UW goals and the gift of a second chance to redeem themselves, Denver simply ran into a Wisconsin buzz saw.
“I sensed a team who had a second chance at life,” said Gwozdecky when asked what was different about UW compared to the last time the two teams played. “It’s not fun to sit after being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs and wonder if you get an extra chance to play another game.
“When you’re given a second chance like that, you really certainly want to make the most of it.”
Even though the circumstances will change the next time these two teams play in Madison, Wisconsin may want to consider going against protocol from now on whenever the Pioneers come to town.
“They looked good on us, didn’t they?” Eaves joked about the red road sweaters. “We may have to rethink our wardrobe.”