ST. PAUL, Minn. — The players haven’t changed.
The system hasn’t changed.
But the scores are starting to.
2013 WCHA Final Five
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The win punches the Badgers’ first trip to the WCHA Final Five championship game since 2000 and the first for head coach Mike Eaves.
There’s been no shift in strategy for the Badgers and yet, despite starting the season with one win in its first 10 games, Wisconsin’s hot streak has the Badgers on the cusp of a spot in the tournament.
Bob Motzko – whose Huskies had just seen the Badgers just three weeks ago at the National Hockey Center – didn’t see a new team on the other side of the ice. Not at all.
“I think they’re the exact same,” Motzko said. “That’s where I give them credit. They’re just dialed in right now. The systems, how they play – I was awful impressed today.”
St. Cloud State appeared to be the more formidable of the offenses Friday afternoon, but just as they had Thursday, the Badgers drew first blood on the strength of a Joseph LaBate shot from the left circle that fooled Ryan Faragher (17 saves) at 10:46.
The Huskies came alive not long after and finally came away with the equalizer four minutes later when Ben Hanowski slammed home a one-timer from Nic Dowd for a power-play goal at 14:29.
St. Cloud State then controlled play for much of the next 10 minutes and may have taken the lead if not for an improbable and controversial sequence late in the first.
It appeared that Dowd had a wide-open net to shoot at for the go-ahead goal, but Rumpel’s stick flew – or perhaps was thrown – out of his glove just in time to deflect the puck behind him and wide. After a lengthy review, the referees ruled the stick was knocked out of Rumpel’s hand coincident with the puck being shot on net, negating any chance of referees Brian Thul and C.J. Beaurline awarding a goal.
From there, Wisconsin weathered a storm on one end while scoring more timely goals on the other. John Ramage’s power-play goal at 2:08 of the second from front and center made it 2-1.
And just like Thursday afternoon against Minnesota State, Rumpel settled in and stonewalled St Cloud State’s comeback attempt.
“[Rumpel] gave us a chance to get our feet underneath us early in the game,” Eaves said. “I thought that St. Cloud had the tempo and pace and really came at us hard.”
Rumpel had 30 saves in the contest, dropping his goals-against average to 1.84 in his 27th appearance of the season.
“He stopped some good scoring opportunities and I think that as the game wore on, we started to get back to our game a little bit,” Eaves said. “And I think the fact that Joel was playing so well got into their heads a little bit.”
Nic Kerdiles continued his hot streak midway through the third, giving Wisconsin an insurance goal on a tip-in of a Ramage point shot at 10:29, just 11 seconds into a major penalty to St. Cloud State’s Tim Daly for checking from behind.
Between that major and a minor late in the contest, St. Cloud State knew it had let a golden opportunity to come back slip away.
“I think that it put us in a hole, especially since they went out and scored on it right away,” Huskies’ forward Drew LeBlanc said. “That kind of deflated us a little bit there and made it tough for us to come back.”
Tyler Barnes added an empty-net goal with 1:11 remaining to secure the victory.
The loss removes from the Huskies any sure hope of making the NCAA tournament when the field is announced Sunday, though it is still very possible.
When asked what he thought his team’s status was, Motzko responded simply, “Bubble trouble.”
Conversely, the win gave Wisconsin – 16th in the Pairwise coming into the Final Five – a chance to control its own destiny.
“I’d rather it be in our hands than somebody else’s, so, that’s what I think we’re going into tomorrow with – win a championship and move on from there,” Eaves said.