MADISON, Wis. — The term playoff atmosphere gets thrown around after weekends like these, but the reality is this type of game most often doesn’t get played in front of partisan crowds.
You usually see college hockey at this level on neutral ice in a conference or NCAA tournament, not when there’s still almost two months until things really get interesting.
What No. 1 Denver and No. 3 Wisconsin brought to the Kohl Center ice in two games, however, had as much intensity as any of those one-off postseason showdowns.
Never mind that it pushed the top five teams in the WCHA standings into a clump where the top is just two points ahead of the bottom.
Never mind that the Badgers had just a little bit more than the Pioneers at the end to come away with three points in the series.
If there was one thing to take away, it was that it doesn’t take the bright lights and national television of the postseason to showcase the top end of college hockey.
“That’s championship level in terms of college hockey,” Badgers coach Mike Eaves said after his team emerged with a 4-3 victory. “The intensity, the battle of two teams that have skill, that have strong will, have a strong work ethic, good goaltending. What better way to prepare yourself for the end of the year by playing these types of games.”
A crowd of 15,237 — Wisconsin’s first home sellout this season — saw the Badgers push, the Pioneers push back and the hosts give one last burst of energy: first to go ahead and then to hold the lead in the final minutes.
“The pace was unbelievable the whole weekend,” Wisconsin captain Ben Street said. “You could never really let up; if you had a bad shift, they were going to make you pay for it. That’s the way it is in playoffs. It felt a lot like a tournament game, where there’s a lot on the line. … That’s why I think we’re so happy that we came out with the ‘W’ at the end.”
Being on the losing end had to sting, especially because the Pioneers were able to point pretty clearly at their downfall Saturday — a start that didn’t match what Wisconsin put forth.
They rallied from two goals down to tie things in the third, but Wisconsin’s Michael Davies got the winner with 6:30 remaining.
“The intensity was great,” Pioneers captain Rhett Rakhshani said. “That’s what makes college hockey so much fun. You’ve got to enjoy weekends like this.”
Probably a little bit more when you get three points instead of one.
“Good to see our kids win these type of games,” Eaves said. “That gives us confidence. We understand from the inside out the type of things you need to do to win these type of games.”