With a smothering defense and a 23-save performance by Jack Berry, Wisconsin beat Ohio State 2-1 to advance to the Big Ten championship Saturday night.
The Badgers, who finished in last place after the 2015-2016 season with eight overall wins and three in conference play, dropped two games at home to the Buckeyes to end the regular season, setting up a game that felt as much like a chess match as a hockey game.
“I just think that today’s game was what you want to see in college hockey,” said Wisconsin coach Tony Granato. “It was a battle. I think every inch of ice was battled for, two teams that understood what was available to them.”
The Badgers all but shut down an Ohio State offense that averaged just over four goals a game before Friday’s contest, the same offense that outscored Wisconsin 8-2 in those two games a week ago. Limiting the Buckeyes’ chances was part of the theory of the game for the Badgers on Friday.
“I think from the beginning of the week, Monday, we talked about just sticking to a game plan and wearing the team out, and I thought we did that throughout all three periods,” said Luke Kunin, whose 22nd goal of the season opened the scoring for the Badgers in the first period.. “Everyone just bought into what we had to do to be successful tonight, and I think that’s why we played so well.”
“We knew it was going to be a tight game,” said Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik. “We knew they would play hard and try not to give up much, and we figured the same thing. We just didn’t do enough to win the game today.”
The Badgers led 1-0 on Kunin’s goal at 17:18 in the first. After Wisconsin won a faceoff in the Ohio State zone, from the right point, Tim Davison shot the puck left to JD Greenway, who fired at Ohio State goaltender Matt Tomkins. The rebound went straight back to Kunin, who one-timed it into the net.
Ohio State evened the score on Dakota Joshua’s power-play goal from the right post, a little side-step around a Wisconsin defender a quick tuck behind Berry, but at 1:30 in the third, Will Johnson put the Badgers ahead again on his 10th goal of the season. Aidan Cavallini made a heads-up play to push the puck ahead to Seamus Malone. Malone skated in and drew Tomkins right before sliding the puck left to Johnson, who scored on the wide-open left side of the net.
Granato said that there were a couple of things his team learned from last weekend’s series.
“One of the things that I thought was different last weekend (was that) we let them get a lead, and that was huge tonight for us on how we started the game,” said Granato, who added that the Badgers weren’t on their heels Friday.
“This week we played defense by playing good offense. When it was in our end, we blocked our shots when we needed to, but we got out of our end quick. And I thought we did a much better job. If you forecheck hard and you don’t give them time to be able to turn the puck up the ice, it makes it awful hard on them. And I thought we did a really good job of that tonight. They had some chances, but they didn’t get consistent chances by making long plays up the ice.”
The Badgers (20-14-1) won the Big Ten playoff championship in 2014 and the WCHA playoff title in 2013. The win moves Wisconsin higher up in the PairWise Rankings, but the Badgers will need a win Saturday to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
Ohio State (21-10-6) is a PairWise bubble team, tied for 13th with Providence.