MADISON, Wis. — When stared in the face of adversity, somehow, someway, there is no blinking from the youthful Wisconsin crew.
No loss of confidence, no loss of direction, and no second guessing among the array of young talent that No.13 Wisconsin is relying on to navigate the treacherous college hockey waters.
If there was a time Wisconsin was going to blink, Saturday night would have been the perfect situation.
“We have young guys, yes, but they are young guys that are matured now,” senior Craig Johnson said. “Coming into the second half, they’ve learned from mistakes in the first half. They’re skilled and we know we are a good hockey team.”
One would have to be strong willed and skilled in order to successfully end one of the oddest stretches in program history before the final seconds ticked off the clock in the extra period.
With only eight seconds left in overtime, sophomore Justin Schultz found himself in the right spot to chip a Jake Gardiner pass into the back of the net to help Wisconsin survive upset-minded Canisius, 6-5, for a weekend sweep, extending its winning streak to seven games and gaving the Badgers their first overtime win in 26 tries, an 0-8-18 stretch that dated back to the start of 2007-08.
“We found a way tonight,” said Johnson, who was one of the key ingredients in giving the 13,201 fans in attendance their money’s worth. “It was nice. You could see the way we celebrated, it felt like we won the Stanley Cup. We fought hard to get that win.”
Relief is another word that comes to mind, especially with the way the Badgers (14-7-3) cleared the bench and formed a dog pile mere seconds after Schultz’s goal hit the netting. Consider it being Wisconsin letting its frustrations out after registering a 30-shot advantage (53-to-23), going 2-for-10 on the power play and seeing Gardiner hit roughly six posts over the course of the weekend.
Gardiner’s 14 shots Saturday night were the most by a Badgers player since at least 1998-99, according to UW’s Athletic Communications, but he got the last laugh with his third point of the night on his game-winning assist.
“It was a perfect pass,” Schultz said. “I just had to put it in the open net.”
Overtime was most likely the furthest thing from anybody’s mind the way the game started, but it was easy to lose track of the number of times Wisconsin held momentum only to loosen the reigns just enough to allow Canisius back in.
The Badgers built a 3-0 lead and a 19-to-3 shot advantage through a period and a half, even going as far as holding the Golden Griffins without a shot until 11 minutes, 40 seconds into the game.
The goals ranged from the fluky to the spectacular, starting with Johnson’s pass deflecting off a defenseman’s stick into the net for the power-play goal, Gardiner using a low shot fake to score his fifth and Craig Smith knifing his way through three defenders and firing a shot past goalie Dan Morrison (47 saves) after getting tripped from behind.
In a span of 9:07 in the second period, the Badgers went from scoreless to up 3-0 and having five power play opportunities.
“We talked about it in the locker room a little bit that we got up three and we might have relaxed a little bit,” sophomore Keegen Meuer said.
As quickly as UW gained the lead with veteran maneuvers, it erased it with basic mistakes, allowing Cansius to stop the bleeding. Rushing to get the puck into the zone and a shot off before the power play ended, a mishandled puck led to a Tyler Law breakaway goal at 12:50.
The mistakes were magnified further when senior goalie Brett Bennett couldn’t stifle a rebound on the power play, leading to Scott Jenks’ tap-in goal, and couldn’t see a Ryan Bohrer shot at 2:27 in the third that caromed off the post and into the net. Despite being outshot 33-14, the Griffins had taken advantage to tie the game.
“I thought our guys showed the ability to gain some confidence after the second period,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “I felt like our guys were confident going into the third that we could capitalize on one more opportunity to win.”
After seeing his teammates squander a three-goal lead, Meuer gave himself a 22nd birthday present by knocking in rebound at the left post at 8:42 for his first career goal.
Meuer, whose father and two older sisters were standout soccer players at UW and whose uncles, Rob and Jeff Andringa, each skated for and won a national championship with the Badgers, seemed to be the tipping point, as UW got production from a fourth line that had a combined total of five career goals in 56 games played.
“If you looked at what they did tonight, they chipped in offensively, gave us good energy, didn’t take any penalties, they drew penalties, it was a good night for our fourth unit,” said UW coach Mike Eaves said, describing the wild, wacky game as a diagram for mental toughness.
Not so much for the penalty kill, as the Badgers took consecutive minors that dropped them down two players, allowing the Griffins to score two goals in 42 seconds to take the 5-4 lead. Canisius’ three power-play goals were more than the team had scored in the last eight games combined.
Even after Craig Smith knocked in his second on a rebound at 16:26, Dave Smith felt his team was in position to win until an interference penalty, the 10th penalty of the night on Canisius, forced his team out of attack mode.
“I think the story for us was our power play capitalized and our penalty kill came up big, even though they got the winner on the power play,” Dave Smith said. “Our power play got us back in the game.”
Citing the need to give his back-up goalie some minutes in case something happened down the stretch, Eaves had already planned well in advance to sit senior goalie Scott Gudmandson, who had won six straight starts, for Bennett. The results were mixed, after Bennett allowed five goals on 23 shots, but most coming from tip-ins, screens and a breakaway.
“It’s a little bittersweet,” Bennett said. “You don’t have the performance you want to against your hometown team. It feels good that I have a good team in front of me and we came away with that win.”