MADISON, Wis. — After earning home ice by default Friday night, UW forward Ben Grotting felt that getting home ice was the spark the Badgers needed to break their five-game winless streak.
If it was a spark Wisconsin wanted, considered freshman Derek Stepan the match.
Stepan ignited the Badgers by scoring two short-handed goals on the same North Dakota second-period power play, helping No.19 Wisconsin end the regular season on the highest of notes with a 4-1 victory over No.6 North Dakota.
The Wisconsin (17-15-4, 14-11-3 WCHA) win, coupled with Colorado College’s tie, means the Badgers clinch third place in the WCHA and will host Minnesota State next weekend and avoid the dreaded play-in game.
“The atmosphere in the locker room the last couple weekends has people really gripping their sticks,” Stepan said. “A win like this tonight is a big win against a good team and can definitely get the ball rolling for the playoffs.”
With the score tied at one midway through the second period and Wisconsin defenseman Ryan McDonagh called for interference at nine minutes, 18 seconds, Stepan helped push the ball in the right direction.
On North Dakota’s first attempt into the Wisconsin zone, left-winger Andy Bohmbach stole the puck at UW’s blue line, skated up ice and crisscrossed with Stepan to draw both UND defensemen away from the freshman center, allowing Stepan to fire a rocket that beat goalie Brad Eidsness (32 saves) in the lower left corner at 9:30.
With the sellout Kohl Center still abuzz, Stepan registered the encore. Another sloppy handling of the puck by the Sioux (22-12-4, 17-7-4 WCHA) power play allowed Stepan to lead an odd-man rush toward Eidsness. Passing the puck off to Bohmbach, Bohmbach’s shot rebounded off the chest of Eidsness and bounced right to Stepan, who chipped the puck over the freshman goalie’s head with six seconds left on the power play.
“Pucks just seemed to find me,” Stepan said with a smile. “Tonight, I had a lot of bounces coming my way and it felt good to kind of get some my way.”
A quick glance through the Wisconsin, WCHA and NCAA record book gives no mention to a player scoring two short-handed goals on the same power play and no documentation of such could be found.
The only thing for certain is that Stepan is the first Badger to score two short-handed goals in a period since Dan Gorowsky accomplished the feet in December 1978.
“I’ll have to research the old files in the brain,” UW head coach Mike Eaves. “It’s highly unusual and it was a turning point of the game for us to get those two goals.”
From that point on, North Dakota, which wrapped up the conference title the night before and will face Michigan Tech next weekend, was finished.
“That deflated our tires,” junior center Darcy Zajac said. “They took advantages of our mistakes and their opportunities. It’s hard to battle back from two short-handed goals pretty quick like that. That’s not something you like to have happen every day.”
Stepan’s historic achievement was one of many positive things for Wisconsin to grasp from its Saturday night triumph. Senior goalie Shane Connelly, winless, like his team, since February 7, stopped 38 shots, putting his win on senior night as one of the best of his career.
“It’s right up there,” Connelly said. “This was a must win for us in terms of our psyche. This ranks up there in pressure wins for this team. We needed to find a way to win a game and find a way to win in the third period.”
Another point was the Badgers didn’t cough up another third-period lead. In a season where the Badgers have coughed up more than their fair share of third-period leads, Wisconsin stayed aggressive, even adding a goal from John Mitchell at 12:28 to ensure that another lost cause wouldn’t happen.
“We’ve had goals take the air out of us the last couple weekends and the focus for us, specifically tonight, that if they tied it up or take the lead, we wouldn’t get down on us and we would get the momentum back,” Bohmbach said. “That’s exactly what we did tonight.”
The most important thing was it gave the Badgers was a sense of hope. After UW’s last win over North Dakota, Wisconsin went 10-1-2 over its next 13 games. With UW most likely needing to win the WCHA Tournament to get a spot in the NCAA field, the Badgers are hoping for a similar turnover this time around.
“The last time we beat North Dakota, we were struggling and got on a roll,” Connelly said. “Maybe the same thing can happen now.”