OMAHA, Neb. — Friday’s WCHA spotlight tilt between Nebraska-Omaha and Wisconsin felt like a playoff game and in a meeting where both teams’ urgency was clearly evident throughout, the Badgers did just enough in the end to pull out a 4-3 win.
Both teams traded blows throughout a very even game, but a fifth goal of the season from UW sophomore forward Brendan Woods with 1:42 left in regulation lifted the No. 16 Badgers to the win on the road at the CenturyLink Center.
With the win, UW saw its record improve to 15-11-7 and 11-7-7 in the WCHA, thus helping them stay in a tie for sixth place in the league with a Denver team that shut Minnesota out 2-0 Friday in Minneapolis.
No. 13 UNO fell to 18-13-2 and 14-9-2 in the league.
“When you come into a rink like this and you’re going to play in an atmosphere like this, we talked [before the game] about pushbacks,” Badgers’ coach Mike Eaves said. “There are going to be swings in momentum, and that was the talk before the game, and that was the talk on the bench during the game.
“The kids were talking about it, so their minds were in the right frame.”
Eaves had his UW team flying in the first period as the Badgers tried to redeem themselves following Monday’s shocking 3-2 overtime loss at home to Penn State and Friday’s visitors got on the board early.
Mark Zengerle scored the night’s opening goal 3:08 into the game, keeping the puck for himself on a Badgers’ two-on-one before wristing a shot that went into the net off UNO goaltender Ryan Massa’s stick-side post.
Massa made his first official start of the season last Saturday. The sophomore announced last summer that he would sit out this season for personal reasons, but he and the UNO coaching staff decided to bring him back last month before eventually burning his redshirt.
It wasn’t long after Zengerle’s goal that the hosts restored parity. UNO junior forward Ryan Walters, the Mavericks’ Hobey Baker Award candidate, picked up his 20th goal of the season at the 7:45 mark of the first period, using a nifty dangle at Badgers’ goaltender Joel Rumpel’s right-hand post before beating the sophomore netminder low from close range.
UNO thought it had taken a 2-1 lead soon after Walters’ tally, but a would-be goal from James Polk was waved off due to goaltender interference after a lengthy review.
The 1-1 deadlock remained for the rest of the first period and wasn’t broken until 9:02 into the middle frame. A shot from Badgers’ defenseman Kevin Schulze from the point hit one of several bodies in front of Massa, but UW forward Michael Mersch was on hand to fire the loose puck home.
What then ensued was a third period that was much more frantic than the second.
Both teams are desperate for points – Wisconsin is trying to get back among the league’s top six and clinch home ice for the first round of the WCHA playoffs and UNO still isn’t mathematically out of the hunt for the league’s regular-season championship – and both clubs’ urgency was particularly apparent in the game’s final 20 minutes.
UNO defenseman Bryce Aneloski tied the game at 2-2 5:25 into the third period, sending a long shot from the top of the slot through a maze of bodies in front and past Rumpel.
Unfortunately for the hosts, though, UW retook the lead on the Badgers’ very next shift. Mersch was running out of room in the right-hand corner in UNO’s zone, but he managed to thread a gorgeous centering feed to linemate Joseph LaBate out front and LaBate made no mistake in beating Massa from close range 22 seconds after Aneloski’s leveler.
UNO wasn’t done yet. At 11:07, Mavericks’ defenseman Andrej Sustr found himself in the right place at the right time when the rebound from a Dominic Zombo shot fell to the six-foot-eight Czech’s stick and he had time and space to beat Rumpel from the far-left post.
The next handful of minutes made it look as though the game was destined to go to overtime, but Woods clinched the two points for the Badgers in the dying moments of regulation, finding a loose puck in the slot before beating Massa high glove-side from between the circles.
Woods’ late goal sealed a seventh road win of the season for the Badgers, who have been considerably better away from their Madison, Wis., home this season than they have been at the Kohl Center.
“I think it’s just the young guys in the locker room buying into what we need to do on the road,” Eaves said. “It’s a simpler game [on the road] and they’ve been able to execute that. We’ve been able to get some timely goals on the road, too, which has been an important factor.”
UNO coach Dean Blais was understandably disappointed with the game’s result and in particular the Mavericks’ inability to pick up on Woods before he scored the game-winner.
“We kept fighting back and we had a pretty good third period going,” Blais said. “One mistake. Puck in the net. Game over.
“Two points escaped. Even if it had just been one, one point wouldn’t have been bad considering we’d been chasing and trying to tie all night long.”