MADISON, Wis. — When he sits his grandkids down years from now to tell them about the Camp Randall Hockey Classic, junior Brendan Smith knows exactly what he’s going to tell them.
“That we had 55,000 fans and we beat Michigan,” the frostbitten defenseman said. “I think those are the first two things I’d say.”
It’s ironic, because the massive attendance will tell their kids about Smith’s heroics and how he made the chilly temperatures bearable.
Mere minutes after Michigan took its first lead of the evening, Smith answered twice on back-to-back power plays in the waning minutes, giving Wisconsin a 3-2 victory in front of 55,031, the second highest total in collegiate hockey history.
“The biggest outdoor party-celebration-festival in Wisconsin history probably took place in Camp Randall tonight watching a hockey game,” UW coach Mike Eave said. “That’s pretty cool.”
After the power play had short circuited Wisconsin (16-7-4) over the last three weeks (going 2-of-25 in the last three series), the Badgers spent the majority of practice Wednesday and Thursday on their special teams, or as Smith called it, ‘going back to the drawing board.’
That led to an adjustment on Wisconsin’s final two power plays in the third period. With the Badgers down 2-1, Wisconsin overloaded one side with Smith (six power-play goals) in the slot and senior tri-captain Blake Geoffrion (10 power-play goals), ready at the back door, forcing the weakside forward to pick a target.
Both times he picked Geoffrion and both times he picked wrong, leaving Smith unmarked and with an alley.
“If we weren’t for the penalties, we’d be sitting here talking about a victory,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “You really have to do a good job (against UW on the penalty kill) and we didn’t.”
Senior Michael Davies found Smith open in the slot at 14:28 and the junior beat Michigan goalie Bryan Hogan (24 saves) to tie the score at two, just 10 seconds after the power play commenced.
“The first one, I was just really lucky,” Smith said. “I may have hit the guy’s shoulder and it went in. The first one was more a close-your-eyes-and-shoot one.”
The second power-play tally wasn’t as complicated for Smith, who had a scoring lane to fire through and more time to get some power behind the shot, scoring the game winner at 18:38 in the final period. When Michigan (16-13-1) was whistled for its third penalty in the final six minutes, the Wolverines never amounted a solid opportunity to attack the Badgers.
“We made an adjustment and we executed at a critical time, which says a lot about the guys on our team,” Eaves said. “You’ve got to find the answer to the riddle, and we stayed with it.”
Much like their outdoor event at Lambeau Field four years ago (a 4-2 UW win), Wisconsin made sure the crowd had something to cheer about in the opening minutes. Freshman Craig Smith, who watched that game from the 50-yard line four years ago, made a beautiful move around Michigan defender Chad Langlais and fired from the goal line on Hogan.
The puck slipped through his pads and sat right in the crease for Jordy Murray, who banged home the loose puck at 3:04.
“It was kind of a fluky goal, but on that ice you take whatever comes,” Murray said. “It’s just crashing the net and it popped right to me. I was just ecstatic at that point.”
Wisconsin outshot Michigan 13-6 and nearly got out of the first period unscathed when Scott Gudmandson stopped Scooter Vaughn’s initial shot from point-blank range. It was a shock to him when he realized the puck had gotten loose and Vaughn knocked in his own rebound at 18:53 in the first.
“It was a good goal,” Vaughn said. “The second effort was there and it was a good goal by our line.”
Wisconsin missed a great chance to tie when Davies knocked one off the post on a breakaway midway through the second period, a miss that looked like it was going to prove costly when freshman Kevin Lynch scored the go-ahead goal at 11:03 in the final period, throwing a dart from well beyond the right circle that Gudmandson lost in the crowd.
“I want to have that one back, but we learned a lot about ourselves in battling back and our guys showed some resolve,” said Gudmandson, who made 22 saves in winning his ninth game of the season. “It was an unbelievable experience, and the fans coming out here in the cold made it worthwhile.”
Ten weeks ago, Wisconsin couldn’t wait to play Michigan again. The Wolverines, a team that mirrors the Badgers in style and physicality, nipped Wisconsin, 3-2, to give the host the extra motivation to make the Camp Randall Hockey Classic a special endeavor.
“The way (that we won) made this game so special,” said senior tri-captain Ben Street. “It feels so good because it wasn’t easy. We had to work really hard for it. It’s nice to get redemption, but no matter who it was, we wanted to win this game. It just worked out that it was Michigan.”
The game didn’t go off without a couple of hitches. Rink officials were forced to come out a half dozen separate times to repair the ice around Hogan’s crease and the brisk wind from the north made the 19 degree temperature feel like it was well into the single digits. In the end, they were moot points.
The last time Wisconsin hosted an outdoor game, it gave the Badgers enough momentum down the stretch for the school to claim their sixth national championship, something Street knows quite well. After this event, Street’s hopeful that the end results are identical.
“This is one of those games that will really help us further on in the year,” he said. “It’s a huge game, a huge stage. It’s easy to get nervous and tense up in the end, and we didn’t. We stayed persistent, and we came back and won. Winning a game like that is what it will take in the end.”