MADISON, Wis. — The transition to playoff intensity wasn’t too far of a leap for No. 14 Wisconsin.
“We’ve been playing playoff hockey since November when we started off the season 1-7-2,” Badgers’ captain John Ramage said. “It was just another game.”
Ramage scored the go-ahead goal in the second period and Wisconsin scraped out a 3-1 victory over Minnesota-Duluth in Game 1 of their WCHA first-round playoff series on Friday.
Ramage also assisted on Nic Kerdiles’ tying goal earlier in the second period for the Badgers, who can close out the best-of-three series and advance to the WCHA Final Five with a win Saturday or, if necessary, Sunday.
The teams brought an level of grittiness that matched the do-or-die series scenario. Wisconsin (18-12-7) is hanging on to a bubble spot in the race for at-large bids to the NCAA tournament, but started the day on the outside looking in.
Minnesota-Duluth (14-18-5) is out of the at-large berth picture.
The Bulldogs overcame a rough start to score first but couldn’t hold on.
“In the third period when we could have started pushing back, we didn’t as much as we could have,” said Bulldogs’ goaltender Aaron Crandall, who made 30 saves. “But it’s a one-goal game [with an empty-netter]; it could have gone either way. We’ve just got to forget this one as quick as possible.”
Mark Zengerle was involved in all three Wisconsin goals, including an insurance goal deposited dead center into an empty net from about 150 feet away with 22 seconds left.
After Dan DeLisle put the Bulldogs ahead in the first period, Zengerle set up the tying goal in the second.
He won a faceoff back to Ramage, who returned the puck to Zengerle for a shot that Kerdiles redirected past Crandall.
Later in the second period, Ramage put Wisconsin ahead when his shot from near the blue line got through traffic in front of the net and past Crandall’s stick side.
“We know exactly what we needed to do to win,” Ramage said, “and we got the job done tonight.”
Minnesota-Duluth fell to 0-5 in WCHA playoff games played in Madison — the others were series in 1978 and 1991 — and saw a four-game winning streak and a five-game unbeaten run end.
The Bulldogs allowed eight of the game’s first nine shots, but put themselves ahead in the first period when DeLisle slid in a feed from Caleb Herbert.
One game after going five-for-eight on the power play in a 6-0 victory over Nebraska-Omaha, the Bulldogs were scoreless on three power-play attempts, with five shots on goal in those six minutes.
The Badgers, playing their first home playoff game since the run to the Frozen Four in 2010, improved to 11-1-5 when not allowing a power-play goal. They’re 7-11-2 when the opponent scores with the man advantage.
The Badgers know they’ll face a big hurdle in Saturday’s Game 2.
“Everybody knows in that room that the hardest thing to do is end somebody’s season,” Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said. “The way that we conducted our business tonight, for the most part we need to do that same tomorrow if we want to try to finish it.”