MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves and his team knew ending Alaska-Anchorage’s season was going to be tough.
And through almost two periods it was.
Derek Stepan and Justin Schultz scored power-play goals 71 seconds apart late in the second period to break a deadlock, and the third-ranked Badgers earned a spot in the WCHA Final Five by knocking off the Seawolves 7-2 on Saturday at the Kohl Center.
Wisconsin swept the best-of-three WCHA first-round playoff series, and goes into the Final Five semifinals next Friday with 11 wins in its last 14 games.
The Badgers’ power play came alive late in the second period, and the Seawolves’ postseason existence ended in the process.
“We were doing the dog paddle [in the second period] and at a TV timeout we talked to our guys and said, We knew this was going to happen; they’re fighting for their lives and they’re giving us everything we can handle right now,’” Eaves said. “We needed to settle in, and our response was getting two power-play goals.”
When the Wisconsin power play unit took the ice late in the second period, it did so mired in a 0-for-13 slump. So instead of setting up in the offensive zone, Stepan deked a defender, found an opening and fired a quick shot glove side to put UW in front 3-2.
“The defenseman stepped up and I knew I the other defenseman had a pretty poor gap so I decided to throw one on net and see what happens,” Stepan said. “We were having a tough time getting it set up, so it was one of those things where I took what was given.”
Schultz extended the Badgers’ lead just over a minute later, after he picked up a loose puck in front and found a way to get his shot through multiple screens and into the back of the net.
The Badgers entered the locker room after the second with a two-goal lead thanks to their power play and the efforts of Scott Gudmandson between the pipes.
“Their goaltender was a difference-maker tonight and their top guys made plays and scored,” Seawolves coach Dave Shyiak said. “For us, it wasn’t a lack of trying, a lack of effort, a lack of chances, because we certainly had our chances and their goaltender came up time and time again with some big saves.”
The Seawolves were outshooting the Badgers after two periods, but Gudmandson came up big time and time again, and his teammates took notice.
“Guddy played one heck of a game tonight, that’s for sure,” Badgers tri-captain Blake Geoffrion said. “He looked very, very confident and that’s why he played as well as he did. And it’s a great time for him to start playing as good as he is.”
Geoffrion opened the scoring at the 3:32 mark in the first period as he gathered the puck in the slot and snapped a shot past Bryce Christianson’s glove.
Fellow senior Michael Davies doubled the lead after receiving a pass from Stepan and firing a shot off Christianson’s glove and into the net, but the Seawolves weren’t about to go down without a fight.
UW frantically killed off two full minutes of five-on-three action, but just seconds after the Badgers returned to full strength, Trevor Hunt fired a shot off Geoffrion and the puck fluttered past Gudmandson’s glove with less than a minute remaining in the first.
And at the 15:27 mark of the second period, Gudmandson misplayed the puck and Curtis Leinweber took advantage, backhanding one into the wide-open net. The game was tied and the momentum had swung in UAA’s favor, but after Gudmandson stood on his head to keep the game tied at 2, two Seawolves penalties put control back into UW’s hands.
Senior forward Aaron Bendickson scored two goals in the third period and Geoffrion added his second in the final minutes to give UW a decisive victory.
And with the win, the Badgers have Sunday off as the week of preparation begins for the Final Five. Six WCHA teams are forced to play a deciding Game 3.
That’s a reward Eaves and his team will gladly accept.
“Those young teams have to come back and get ready to play. We get a day off tomorrow and we get to have a normal week and set us up for going back into St. Paul,” Eaves said “We took care of business and now we’re going to be rewarded for it.”