MADISON, Wis. — Seeing another lead start to slip away into thin air against one of the league’s lowliest teams, No. 19 Wisconsin referenced back to its strength.
Instead of trying to tack on insurance with an offense ranked 50th in the country, the Badgers grinded out the final period with the fifth-best scoring defense in the country.
“There’s a huge emphasis on defending with Wisconsin,” said Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore. “They are hard to penetrate, strong and hard to win battles against them.”
That defense was on display over the final 16-plus minutes of the third period when Wisconsin turned up the screws defensively to hold on for a 3-2 victory over BSU in front of 11,835 at the Kohl Center.
Keegan Meuer, Brendan Woods and Kevin Schulze were credited with goals for Wisconsin (12-9-7, 9-6-7 WCHA), which has won four of its past five league series to sit in a tie for fifth place and six points behind first-place St. Cloud State.
“Survival” was the best word Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves could put it, considering the Badgers escaped a weekend series far from playing its best hockey.
“We landed a wounded plane,” said Eaves. “The fuselage was on fire and we got it on the tarmac.”
It’s a landing Wisconsin botched the night before. Despite firing a season-high 40 shots in the series opener, Wisconsin felt it gave a precious point away when it missed grade-A scoring chances, made defensive blunders and simply couldn’t connect the dots within their offense.
It was a close to another head-scratcher a night later, as Wisconsin saw a comfortable 3-0 lead turn into a nail-biting 3-2 lead with 17-plus minutes to go in the third period because of defensive breakdowns.
“We had the wind and we kind of let it slip away from us in the third,” said Woods.
The offensive issues were twofold. One was that second-leading scorer Derek Lee, who missed the previous three games after suffering a concussion, was back in the lineup, but showed signs of rust. Second was Tyler Barnes, whose 22 career goals ranks third on the club in that category, was a healthy scratch after missing a team meeting.
But while Eaves was candid that Wisconsin’s offense can be better, the Badgers’ defense helped Wisconsin improve to 6-3-7 in games decided by one goal or less.
“We’ll try to win games any way,” said Lee. “I think we’ve seen in different weekends throughout the season that we can play at a higher level. We know it’s there. We just have to harness it and bring it to every weekend.”
While Wisconsin’s defense won the game, it could be argued that Bemidji State (5-17-6, 4-13-5) gave too much away.
One night after stopping 38 shots, including stymieing UW 100-point scorer Mark Zengerle in the closing minutes of overtime, goaltender Mathieu Dugas misplayed the puck behind his net, leading to Brad Navin’s takeaway and Meuer’s empty-net goal only 6:24 into the game.
The issues got worse when Dugas dropped an easy glove save right in front of Schulze, who whistled the rebound in for a 3-0 lead early in the second. Andrew Walsh replaced Dugas (seven saves) and made the final 10 stops in over 27 minutes of work.
“That’s just part of hockey and you just have to try to shrug it off,” said Serratore. “Those things happen.”
Had they not, Bemidji State might have beaten Wisconsin for the first time in seven meetings, as the Beavers got a power-play goal from Aaron McLeod and an early third-period goal from leading scorer Brance Orban to cut the score to 3-2.
Although Serratore felt his team played with a better edge than the night before, Bemidji State couldn’t snap a winless streak that dates back to December 15, a 12-game stretch that is the Beavers’ longest such streak since their inaugural 2000-01 Division I season.
“Bottom line is we made it close,” said Serratore.
While the Beavers are a virtual lock to begin the conference playoffs on the road, Wisconsin’s final six league games left against the league’s top three teams, including hosting No. 1 Minnesota next Friday in Madison and at Chicago’s Soldier Field next Sunday.
“We carved out this little path for ourselves to make something here,” said Lee. “We just have to make sure we’re all pulling the rope in the same direction.”