You would expect Wisconsin’s big players, like Justin Schultz or Mark Zengerle, to make the decisive play, but defenseman Jake McCabe made a move worthy of a star forward and Sean Little made a diving tap-in for the game-winning goal in Wisconsin’s 1-0 win over Denver in game one of their WCHA series. Denver is now 1-13 overall in the postseason against the Badgers.
“I have no answers on that for you,” said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves. “I know tonight was a battle right down to the last second. I thought that getting to the third period in a zero-zero game, that’s where we wanted to be. It was a matter of us trying to manufacture some offense. We did what we needed to do; that’s just one step. Our job is not complete by any stretch of the imagination.”
While each team had a fair number of shots in the first period, none of them were particularly strong scoring chances, except one Wisconsin shot that rang off the post halfway through the period. Each team had one power play, but neither was able to generate any sustained pressure with the opportunity.
“I thought that in the first period, the territorial edge was with Denver, and I thought that ‘Rumps’ was really calm for us,” said Eaves. “Gave us a chance. Usually your best penalty killer is your goaltender, and ‘Rumps’ was.”
Denver carried more of the play in the second period, in part due to getting three separate power plays, but was unable to convert. Wisconsin too was held without much on its lone power play, though Schultz demonstrated his prowess on an end-to-end rush that resulted in a good chance for the Badgers. The Pioneers best chance came in the waning seconds of the period when Dustin Jackson broke in on a two-on-one with Drew Shore, but Jackson was unable to deflect Shore’s pass past Badgers goalie Joel Rumpel.
“I got asked this question about how did it help that we played them a few weeks ago, and I said that the power play, top five in the nation, and our penalty kill has been struggling, but we shut them down that weekend and we shut them down tonight,” said McCabe. “We just have a lot of confidence. We took too many penalties tonight. It was just a great effort. Guys were blocking shots, moving their feet. It was great to see.”
The play started to get more nerve-wracking in the third period, with both teams getting solid scoring opportunities, though Wisconsin carried more of the play. Wisconsin’s Joe Faust was robbed on a chance coming down the slot by Juho Olkinuora, while Jason Zucker raced up the right side of the ice on a partial breakaway, only to have his shot go wide of Rumpel.
“We had our chances to score; I thought we had good opportunities on the power play, but we didn’t execute very well,” DU coach George Gwozdecky said. “Our pace and our speed were good, but in the third, we were tightening up a little. Olkinuora had good night for us, but we just couldn’t score. But, this is a series and we have to get ready for tomorrow night.”
It appeared that the game might be headed for overtime, but McCabe carried the puck up the left side boards and made an incredible stick-handling move to get around defenseman John Lee near the left circle, then threw the pass into the slot. Little was racing down the ice, and he dove at the puck, knocking it past Olkinuora before he ended up in the net himself at 14:10.
“I saw (Mark) Zengerle do it against Minnesota, and he made it look easy,” laughed McCabe. “I had speed, and getting down the wing I was thinking about shooting it, but I had actually did that the time before I came down the ice, so I tried to slide it through.”
“It seems like a lot of times in playoffs, it’s an unsung hero, a guy that is just a hard worker and does his job, and he had his stick on the ice and McCabe put it on his stick and he was able to redirect it past the young goaltender,” said Eaves.
Denver had one or two good chances in the final minute, including one by Drew Shore off a faceoff with three seconds left, but Rumpel preserved the win.
“We’ve been doing some pretty good things for a long time,” said Eaves. “It started down the road in North Dakota. We didn’t win either of those games, but we did some good things there. We feel like we’ve been going in the right direction for a while now, and now we’re reaping some of the benefits.”