MADISON, Wis. — The expression and subsequent reaction from Wisconsin defenseman Craig Johnson told the whole story.
With his team suffering a layoff hangover and down a pair, Johnson, a reserve defenseman elevated for the weekend to UW’s top line, made a simple scoring chance turn into the boost the Badgers sorely needed, and he knew it.
“I haven’t scored since my freshman year, so that was pretty exciting,” Johnson said. “That was a good momentum change for us. We picked it up after that.”
Johnson’s deflected blast from the top of right circle at 13 minutes, 41 seconds opened the floodgates for the suddenly-awake No. 7 Badgers, who proceeded to rip off four unanswered goals to get back in the contest, and got the game-winner from captain Ryan McDonagh midway though the third to propel UW over Merrimack, 5-4, Saturday.
The win puts Wisconsin (12-5-2) in the 7 p.m. Sunday championship of the 21st and final Badger Hockey Showdown for the fifteenth time, facing off against No.9 Yale, (who beat No.11 Ferris State, 6-1, in the other semifinal) — not bad for a UW team that experienced every possible range of emotions.
“There were moments that I wanted to pull my hair out, but you need to take a step back and see what we are dealing with,” UW coach Mike Eaves said. “It’s hard for people outside looking in to recognize what a difficult task it is to insert three players in your lineup when chemistry is changing. You’ve got to quickly try to find chemistry and combinations.
“We looked rusty, too many turnovers, held on to the puck too long, didn’t get a shot for the first 6:30 of the third period, but that’s a good sign for us (to win) with what we had to do with our lineup.”
After skating in 40 games the previous two seasons, an influx of talented defenseman left Johnson on the sidelines for the first 18 games of the season. With defensemen Jake Gardiner and John Ramage competing in the World Junior Championship, Johnson, with one career goal to his name, was given the opportunity to find his niche.
“To have Craig step in right away to get a goal — it was good to see and the type of thing we needed to happen to get things going the way we wanted them,” Eaves said.
Having 21 days away from competition and missing three key ingredients — Gardiner, Ramage and forward Derek Stepan (22 points in 18 games) due to World Juniors — led to a disjointed first period, filled with missed passes, borderline penalties and no continuity, that put the tournament hosts in a two-goal quandary.
Already boasting the fifth-best power play in the nation (converting at a 25 percent rate), Merrimack (7-9-0) needed little help on the man advantage, let alone having two extra skaters. Sophomore defenseman Karl Stollery made the Badgers pay for two penalties in a 52-second span, one-timing a crossing pass past junior goalie Scott Gudmandson into the back right corner of the net at 9:06.
The lackadaisical problem for the Badgers was compounded four minutes later, when center Justin Bonitatibus smashed home a centering pass from Jesse Todd to double the lead.
“We’ve been able to score goals this year, something we haven’t been able to do in the past,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy said. “It’s still a process with our guys. It’s a learning curve.”
The momentum curve UW parlayed from Johnson’s goal was undeniable. Getting its life back, freshman defenseman Justin Schultz sniped a shot from the slot at 2:50 to tie the score; forward Jordy Murray scored on a breakaway at 7:06 and junior Sean Dolan banged home a rebound at 13:22 to cap a stellar second period and give UW a two-goal lead.
The goal was especially big for Murray, who missed four straight games last month with a shoulder injury to close out the first half of the regular season and received a call from his father, Andy, Saturday morning telling him he was fired as coach of the St. Louis Blues of the NHL.
“He wasn’t bitter; he knows how the business goes,” said Murray, whose dad was trying to make it to Madison to watch him live for the first time since high school. “That’s the way it goes. I think I gave him a pretty good game.”
Even Gudmandson fed off the momentum, shaking off the two soft early goals to stuff center Stephane Da Costa, the top-scoring freshman in the nation, after he head faked to his left and tried firing one low right.
After Murray showed the Warriors how to properly execute a breakaway, faking his shot on sophomore goalie Joe Cannata only to pull the puck back and tuck it inside the right post, Gudmandson made another key save on a breakaway, stopping junior Francois Ouimet with less than three minutes to go in the period.
However, two more soft goals in the third period — a shot from captain Chris Barton bouncing off a UW defenseman’s helmet into the net and a wrister from Da Costa — tied the score at four, reverting UW back to its first-period woes.
“That team didn’t go away,” Eaves said. “Give them credit.”
This time, another defenseman took the igniting role. Only 21 seconds after Barton was whistled for hooking, his first penalty of the year, junior Ryan McDonagh, who experienced World Juniors last season, fired a missile near the blue line that beat Cannata glove side for the deciding tally.
“He got the game puck for scoring a big goal at the time that we needed it,” Eaves said.
It wasn’t a very happy 20th birthday in the other net for Cannata, who gave up five goals on 40 shots, and Merrimack, which couldn’t convert a 6-on-4 in the final 95 seconds that would have saved the Warriors from Sunday’s consolation game.
“We’ve got a resilient group of guys,” Dennehy said. “We’ve got a belief system that we can play with anybody. We had the same feeling tonight. When you have to come back and you exert that much energy, we got a little leggy at the end.”