Whether it is the youth of the defenseman or the breaks not bouncing its way, Wisconsin, giving up a conference-worst 4.38 goals per game, had seen four third period leads flitter away and stumbled through the toughest part of its schedule with only one win to its credit.
Toss in the fact the Badgers had scored the first goal in five of their eight games this season, but only scored three times in the first period and Wisconsin has been one of the WCHA’s greatest enigmas in the first five weeks of the hockey season.
Starting a six game streak against unranked opponents, the mystery of UW is beginning to unfold, although there are still plenty of plot twists to get the Badger Nation guessing.
Wisconsin jumped on visiting Michigan Tech by scoring two first period goals and held on for dear life, being outscored 2-0 over the final 25-plus minutes, before closing out a 3-2 victory in front of 12,474 at the Kohl Center.
“We rode the great start wave in getting off to 2-0 in the first and building it to three, but we felt there were moments when we weren’t as consistent as we have been,” said UW head coach Mike Eaves. “From that standpoint, we’re pleased to have a modest winning streak of two.”
The wave of emotion hit Wisconsin (2-6-1, 2-5-1 WCHA) just 1:16 into the opening period. Thanks to Huskie goal tender Rob Nolan being perfectly screened by Derek Stepan, defenseman Ryan McDonagh fired a slap shot that found the back right corner of the net, helping the
Badgers break their first period deficiency and get on the board early.
“Coach Eaves definitely stressed to have a good start at the beginning of the game and that’s a darn good way to do it,” said McDonagh. “We got the crowd into it, get them excited and get everybody on the bench fired up.”
The Badgers, despite out shooting Michigan Tech 16-5 in the opening period, look like they were going to have to settle with a one goal lead at the first intermission until Tech defenseman John Kivisto was whistled for holding with only 27 seconds left in the period.
With the benefit of having an extra skater for the fourth time in the period, the Badgers only needed four seconds to double their score. On a cross-ice pass from defenseman Brendan Smith, Jamie McBain nailed a one-timer past Nolan for his team-leading eighth point of the season
with a momentous goal.
Wisconsin extended its lead to three in the second period on John Mitchell’s third goal of the year when the junior was left wide-open between the face-off circles and found the upper left corner of the net.
Over the next period and a half, UW was far from comfortable, as the Badgers have had to fight all season long.
The Huskies began chipping away late in the second, when Tech center Alex Gagne was in the right place at the right time off a Mike Vanwagner shot. The rebound bounced off the right pad of UW goalie Shane Connelly (24 saves) onto Gagne’s stick, giving him a wide-open net to get Tech on the board with a power play goal.
For the game, Tech went 1-for-8 while the Badgers went 1-for-9 on the man advantage.
Six minutes into UW’s traditionally unlucky third period, Tech struck again. After Connelly managed to deflect a shot with his body, the rebound was left untouched for forward Alex Macleod, who made the Badgers sweat even more after cutting the lead to the one.
“We didn’t play desperate hockey until we got behind. You’ve got to play desperate and play with a sense of urgency from the beginning,” Michigan Tech head coach Jamie Russell said. “Wisconsin was first to loose pucks, won the 50-50 battles and we weren’t disciplined in
taking our penalties.”
A change in net also seemed to give the Huskies (2-5-0, 1-4-0 WCHA) a spark. Russell pulled Nolan (17 saves) at the start of the third period in favor of freshman goalie Josh Robinson.
Despite throwing Robinson in the deep end of the pool in front of a belligerent Wisconsin student section, the freshman stopped nine third period shots, including stone walling UW on four power plays, including a 5-on-3 that kept Tech within striking distance.
“We were down and we wanted to give Josh a chance,” Russell said. “We were down and wanted to spark the team. I thought he came in and did extremely well in the third period, making a number of key saves in the 5-on-3 and in the third period for a long stretch of time.”
With the Badgers blockaded out of Tech’s net, Wisconsin’s defensemen buckled down with a little luck, dodging a couple wide-open nets when Tech’s forward couldn’t corral a bouncing puck that could have easily tied the score in the third period.
“We kind of left our guard defensively,” UW’s Mitchell said. “We were able to get it back together in the third, go back to basics, keep it simple and get back to playing hard and pull off a win.”
“We had seven empty nets and we scored on two of them,” Russell added. “We had some golden opportunities where we didn’t finish.”
The Badgers now find themselves in an unusual circumstance. Winning its first back-to-back games since last January, Wisconsin will try for its first three game winning streak since March 2007, a streak that signified that the youth on the Badgers is starting to get a foothold on experience.
“Hopefully we can do that tomorrow night,” Eaves said of the three game streak. “That will be the task at hand and we’re going to work toward that.”