MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin will play the remainder of its schedule on the road where the Badgers have mustered just one win this season, but that does not mean a 5-2 victory over No. 10 Denver Saturday night at the Kohl Center will not be important down the stretch.
“It just seems to the coaching staff that no matter where we end up in the standings, this is the kind of game we’re going to need when we go to the playoffs,” UW coach Mike Eaves said. “This is a playoff-ready type of game and that’s the mentality we have to have as we go down these last four games.”
Despite the loss, the Pioneers (18-10-4 overall, 13-7-4 WCHA) remained in third place in the WCHA, three points ahead of Colorado College. UW (13-15-2 overall, 8-14-2 WCHA) moved into a tie for tenth place with Minnesota State.
“Defensively, we were pretty bad tonight,” Denver captain Drew Shore said. “[DU goaltender Sam] Brittain actually played pretty well tonight. If he didn’t play the way he did, the score easily could have been eight or nine.”
Entering Saturday, the Badgers had scored just seven goals during a five-game losing streak. When the Pioneers’ Jason Zucker started Saturday’s scoring a minute into the second period, the frustration on the UW bench was obvious.
However, the Badgers found offense where they usually find it, closely tied to sophomore center Mark Zengerle and junior defenseman Justin Schultz.
Zengerle tied the game five minutes later with his first point in five games and the Badgers added another midway through the period, marking Wisconsin’s first multi-goal period since Jan. 27 against North Dakota.
“We spoke last night after the game and he was beside himself with frustration,” Eaves said of Zengerle. “I told him, ‘You’re a good player, you need to remember that and just relax and play.’ He did that tonight.”
Zengerle added an assist to push his season point total to 41 (11 goals, 30 assists), becoming the fourth WCHA player to reach the 40-point plateau this season. Schultz became the fifth in the third period when he collected the puck at the point on a power play, waited for an angle and beat Brittain with a wrist shot.
“[Zengerle and Schultz] are always dangerous with the puck and you never know exactly what play they’re going to make because they can make so many different plays,” said Wisconsin forward Keegan Meuer, who gave the Badgers a two-goal cushion with a goal early in the third period.
The Badgers managed to reverse several trends from Friday night’s 3-0 loss to the Pioneers, particularly on special teams.
After failing on one power-play opportunity Friday night, the Pioneers entered Saturday with a league-best 23.8 percent conversion rate (31-for-131). However, Denver managed just two shots on three opportunities Saturday and never found much rhythm with a man advantage.
“Based on what they were trying to do, we tried to counter-punch, if you will, and take some of their tendencies away,” Eaves said.
“They were good,” Shore said of UW’s penalty killing unit. “They got in shot lanes up top and really took me away in the middle. That and up top, we couldn’t really do anything.”
The Badgers managed to convert on one out of four power-play opportunities Saturday after going scoreless on four tries Friday. The conversion came late in a series of back-to-back opportunities midway through the third period and ended any chance of a comeback.
“There were a couple times in the game when I thought we kept coming,” Shore said. “I thought when I scored right at the beginning of the third, I think we were down 3-2, that gave us a little momentum. We just got in the box too many times and when you put those guys on the power play, they’re going to score.”
On Senior Night and in front of a sellout crowd of 15,325, Eaves said he thought it was the best his team has played all season.
“This is a long time coming,” he said. “It was fun to be on the bench with these kids and see them get rewarded.”