MADISON, Wis. — Even with the hosts having a down season, Denver coach George Gwozdecky knows what it takes to win games in a raucous Kohl Center: good goaltending, high energy from the special teams, and a little bit of puck luck.
Funny that whenever the former Wisconsin forward drops by his old college town, all those things, more often than not, seem to work out in his favor
No.10 Denver again made Wisconsin’s home arena a comfortable environment, as the Pioneers used 28 saves from sophomore Sam Brittain and three goals from its top two lines in a 3-0 shutout over Wisconsin in front of 12,566 fans Friday.
“It was a good win,” said Gwozdecky, as the Pioneers improve to a gaudy 14-3-3 at the Kohl Center. “I think the difference was we were able to finish around the net and Sam Brittain was terrific for us. From an offensive standpoint, I think it’s a good thing we know we can be better.”
With a goalie like Brittain, Denver (18-9-4, 13-6-4 WCHA) can afford to have some slow nights offensively.
Even with two goalies that had played respectably in 12 games this season, Gwozdecky didn’t hesitate to turn to Brittain for a third straight start and fifth in the last six games after the sophomore missed the first 25 games of the season with a knee injury.
“It was tough, but the first thing was getting healthy and then trying to earn my spot back,” said Brittain. “It’s been a challenge, because there are three of us that can play. The biggest thing is taking it one practice, one play at a time.”
Brittain had never played in the Kohl Center — he has rarely played anywhere this season after going 19-9-5 as a freshman — but earned his opportunity after posting a pair of victories over second-ranked Minnesota last weekend.
Brittain was up to the challenge, stonewalling all four power-play opportunities and multiple odd-man rushes to get his first shutout since silencing North Dakota on October 30, 2010.
“He got us out of a jam time and time again,” senior Luke Salazar said of Britain. “He’s our rock back there.”
Ironically, the last time the Badgers suffered a home shutout was at the hands of the Fighting Sioux two weeks later (November 12, 2010) — ending a run of 35 straight home games with at least one goal.
“He doesn’t have a lot of wasted motion, which was one of the things we liked about him,” said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves of Brittain, who the UW staff heavily recruited. “He’s a big lad, not a lot of wasted motion, pretty calm in net and he was pretty square to the puck tonight.
“One of our challenges is to get more traffic in front of him. As good as he is, it’s tougher to see the puck when you don’t see it.”
Right now, everything is tough for Wisconsin (12-15-2, 7-14-2 WCHA), and the first goal epitomized that. As Denver’s first power play was set to expire, sophomore Mark Zengerle attempted a high-risk centering pass in his own zone and he paid for it, as Salazar easily read the play, swiped the pass and faked out goalie Joel Rumpel (22 saves) for a wide-open goal to open the scoring.
It ended what was a stellar penalty kill for Wisconsin, limiting Denver’s league-leading power-play unit (31-for-129, 24 percent entering the night) to only three shots and no real rhythm until the turnover, which went down as an even-strength goal at 8:22 in the second period.
“It’s terrible,” said Zengerle, as UW’s losing streak has reached five games. “We’re trying, obviously, we want to help out and score for our team. We’ve had the chances. They just haven’t gone in.”
Wisconsin — which outshot Denver 28-27 — had opportunities during an early flourish in the third period, but Brittain denied multiple opportunities, and got lucky when Zengerle missed on UW’s best Grade A scoring chance of the night, a goal he said he makes 999 times out of 1,000.
Shortly after, sophomore Jason Zucker rifled a shot past Rumpel in traffic to double the lead and silence a crowd that was just starting to get vocal again.
It was the 16th goal and the 35th point of the season by Zucker, as the sophomore continues to validate his conference’s preseason player of the year pick. Sophomore Nick Shore capped the scoring with at empty-net goal at 19:29.
“We buried the ones we needed to bury,” said Zucker.
As tough as the struggles have been for Zengerle, one-time Hobey Baker candidate Justin Schultz — who scored 11 goals in the team’s first 19 games — couldn’t connect on any of his four shots, leaving him with one goal in his last 10 games.
“I would say all of our offensive guys here recently are pressing,” Eaves said. “They just have to relax a little bit and let their natural abilities come through.”
Salazar admitted that when going over the scouting report, a lot of time was spent focusing on stopping Zengerle and Schultz, UW’s top two scorers by a wide margin.
“We know both of those guys are top players in the country,” Salazar said. “We know they are tough to stop.”
Consider that mission accomplished.