MADISON, Wis. — Coming off a season that fell .0002 points short of making the NCAA Tournament, Wisconsin hockey knows that venturing out of conference can make or break its tournament resume.
UW went 3-4-1 in the non-conference slate late season, including a humbling 5-1 defeat at New Hampshire that broke its post-season hopes. So far in this campaign, Wisconsin is skating on the right foot.
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The Badgers dominated all facets of the stat sheet, continued to get solid goaltending from junior transfer Brett Bennett and got scoring contributions from three sources, including two tallies from sophomore Derek Stepan that all proved vital, as Wisconsin upended New Hampshire, 4-1, in front of 11,490 fans at the Kohl Center.
“Obviously because of history, it dictates that it (the win) is important,” said UW coach Mike Eaves of beating a team that has qualified for eight-straight NCAA tournaments and advanced to four Frozen Fours since 1998. “We have not maybe made tournaments because of that fact.”
Eaves didn’t like to use the word ‘dominated’ to describe the performance by Wisconsin (2-2-1), but the numbers tell a far different story.
After the Wildcats (2-3-1) outshot the Badgers 33-31 in last season’s match-up, Wisconsin’s veteran front line took advantage of a New Hampshire offense skating five freshmen, out-shooting the visitors 51-13.
After the Badgers were whistled for nine penalties totaling 40 minutes in Saturday’s loss at Minnesota State, Wisconsin stayed out of the box, not giving UNH its first power play until 7:32 in the third period. A lot of good it did, as Austin Block was whistled for interference five seconds into the man advantage.
“We were just skating around with them and they were buzzing around our end,” said UNH coach Dick Umile, as his program falls to 0-8-0 all-time in Madison. “We had a tough time skating with them. It wasn’t a good night for us.”
Wisconsin also got its bounces, the most important one going to defenseman John Ramage. Off the face-off, Ramage quickly netted his first collegiate goal on a slap shot from the blue line at 5:43 seconds of the second to open the scoring.
“Getting the first goal was big for me,” said Ramage, who led UW with a plus-three ratio. “That’s pretty big, especially for a stay-at-home defenseman.”
While Ramage was still wearing the euphoria of his first goal on his face after the game, the look on senior John Mitchell’s face could be one of relief. Following Ramage’s goal, Mitchell found the net at 12:43, a play that was set up when three players collided in front of UNH goalie Brian Foster (47 saves), setting up the scoring lane.
After scoring 15 goals last season to tie for the team lead, Mitchell had attempted only four shots through the team’s first four games, including no shots in the team’s last three games.
“It’s just working harder every game to raise my game,” Mitchell said. “A little puck luck always helps, too. I was getting pretty frustrated personally, but I tried to stay mentally focused and prepared to do the best job I can.”
Wisconsin attempted 19 shots on Foster in the second period to the Wildcats’ four, but could only manage a one-goal lead, thanks to a stellar short-handed goal by senior Peter LeBlanc.
After a sloppy blue-line pass by UW’s power-play unit, the UNH captain skated in towards Bennett and faked right, getting Bennett to commit to the right post, only to pull the puck back across his body and tuck the puck inside the left goal post.
Constant offensive pressure helped the Badgers limit further damage while Stepan padded their lead, scoring his first goal by watching a Jake Gardiner shot bounce off his arm at 5:22 and another nearly four minutes later on a bouncing shot from the right circle to finalize the scoring.
After a 19-save shutout in his last start, Bennett had another easy night at the office, making 12 saves and never getting seriously challenged after the first intermission.
“The biggest thing is his mental focus; it’s tough to play in games when you are only getting 12 shots,” Eaves said. “He’s done a nice job of staying focused, handling the puck, and he was into the game.”