ST. PAUL, Minn. — Wisconsin’s 20-5-2 run and its resurgence after a 1-7-2 start might not have been too predictable to anyone.
But the method in which that occurred certainly was.
2013 WCHA Final Five
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The Badgers did so in remarkably similar fashion to their defeats of Minnesota State and St. Cloud State in the days prior – using key goals from Tyler Barnes and Nic Kerdiles to build a lead that its defense hung onto – and did so in resilient faith and confidence in the system they’ve bought into since Day One.
“It’s funny,” Wisconsin forward Ryan Little said when asked about the run. “At the start of the season, we never predicted what we’d start out like, but at the same time, at the start of the season, we knew exactly what kind of team we had. In our minds, we’d be at where we’re at right now.”
There was nothing Scott Owens’ Tigers saw from the Badgers Saturday night that was out of the ordinary – even considering the only matchup between these two squads in early November. But that didn’t make it any easier for the Tigers, who were making their own improbable playoff run.
“They’re obviously dialed into a real good defensive game,” Owens said. “Their systems are really structured.”
Badgers’ netminder Joel Rumpel stopped 20 shots and his defenders in front of him blocked 17 more.
“We couldn’t get a ton mustered up because of their style, which is so good and so smothering – and our sixth game in nine days,” Owens said. “It’s a tough combination.”
Both teams had modest chances in a sluggish first period, but Wisconsin broke through late in the first. Barnes plugged in his fourth of the tournament at 19:43, corralling a Frankie Simonelli point shot that was also tipped by Kerdiles.
Sean Little added another goal with another tip past Joe Howe (30 saves) 3:28 into the second, making a comeback unlikely considering Wisconsin’s recent history – and considering the Badgers’ 20-7-3 record when scoring first – but Rylan Schwartz found Charlie Taft for a smooth tap-in goal at 7:19 to put the Tigers on the board.
“I didn’t think we had our best hockey at the start there,” Schwartz said. “I thought we slowly got going a little bit better. We just stuck to our game plan there and came back a little bit.”
Kerdiles found the scoresheet again at 16:15, tapping a rebound out of mid-air to put Wisconsin up by two, but a late second period breakaway goal from Schwartz at 19:32 prevented the Badgers from building that lead any more.
The Tigers tried and tried again to find the equalizer in the third. But despite 14 shot attempts in the final frame, the Badgers held the Tigers to just four shots on goal, blocking eight.
Schwartz also rang one off the inside of the post late.
An extra attacker yielded a flurry of chances late, but ultimately a William Rapuzzi tripping penalty with nine seconds remaining doomed the Tigers in that do-or-die moment.
“I liked the fact that we battled and competed to the very end,” Owens said.
The Badgers now move on, earning the WCHA’s autobid. After a season full of tumult, injuries, suspensions and untimely losses, Saturday’s win atones for a regular season record that would have all but guaranteed an early season’s end.
“We get to play another weekend,” Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said. “It didn’t look like that at the beginning of the season, but it’s a great thing for these young men because they played for each other and learned some lessons the hard way.”
Considering all that the Badgers went through, Eaves called it an enjoyable season and relished taking in his players hoisting the Broadmoor Trophy from the bench.
“This is their moment,” Eaves said. “It’s on the ice and that’s where they played it and shed blood, sweat and tears all together. That’s their moment.”