ST. PAUL, Minn. — Depth. Experience. Goaltending questions. Performing in the big games.
Those are all themes that have been beaten into the ground when talking about the Wisconsin men’s hockey team this season. And the Badgers will get at least a couple more weeks to get sick of talking about them, as they beat St. Cloud State 5-3 in the West Regional championship, and advance to the Frozen Four in Detroit.
All four factors were on display in a game that wasn’t quite sealed until an Aaron Bendickson empty-net goal with 1:08 to play. SCSU had pulled to within 4-3 after UW goaltender Scott Gudmandson allowed a soft goal to squeak by at 17:10 of the third period.
But as they have all season, when the game was on the line, the Badgers stood their ground and ensured they wouldn’t blow what had been a 3-1 lead.
The depth and experience were on display as senior forward John Mitchell got two goals, including the game winner. Mitchell hadn’t scored since Jan. 29 at Minnesota-Duluth, and had just five goals coming into the game.
Both goals came at pivotal points in the game, as the Neenah, Wisc. native poked one five-hole to put UW up 4-2 less than three minutes after SCSU’s Jared Festler scored shorthanded to make it a one-goal game.
“The second one was just a great individual effort with Andy Bohmbach, he was able to get the puck out front,” Mitchell said. “Again, I drove to the net and was able to slip it five-hole.”
Mitchell also poked one five-hole on Husky starter Mike Lee to start the scoring just 2:31 into the game.
Mitchell’s first goal was just one of three UW tallies in the first period, as senior tri-captain Blake Geoffrion scored and — there’s the depth again — sophomore defenseman Jake Gardiner netted just his sixth goal of the season.
This was just one night after UW’s big guns — Geoffrion, Michael Davies and Brendan Smith came up big, totaling five points between the three of them.
“When you get down to this time of year, you are looking for offense from anybody and everybody,” UW head coach Mike Eaves said.
The quick start resulted in Lee being pulled 15:21 into the game in favor of Dan Dunn. Last Friday, Lee was unstoppable, shutting out the Badgers in the WCHA Final Five semifinal. UW didn’t get anything going until the third period in that game, and the Badgers seemed well aware of how important it would be to start like they did.
“I think the key to the game tonight was the start of the game,” Eaves said. “Getting the early lead — we’ve talked about for a long time with our team… about having a great start is ultimately a pivotal time of the game and we were able to get that tonight.”
Also in Wisconsin’s favor was the fact St. Cloud State went to double-overtime against Northern Michigan the night before. The Huskies deflected questions about the effect of playing an extra 20:23 of hockey in the previous game though.
“This time of year, teams have got to overcome that kind of stuff,” SCSU captain Garrett Raboin said. “You’ve got to play through that - it happens to a lot of teams, a lot of games go to overtime.”
While Wisconsin’s depth and experience showed up in a big-time game yet again, Gudmandson was also not at his best all game. Tony Mosey’s goal to make it 4-3 just made it between the post and Gudmandson’s left leg, a soft goal in a crucial point in the game. Gudmandson also gave up a rebound to allow the Huskies’ shorthanded goal.
But again, in a big game, the Badgers were up to the task. They showed it in coming back to win the Camp Randall Hockey Classic against Michigan back in February, and before that in taking three points from then-No. 1 Denver at the Kohl Center.
The Badgers were quick to respond when scored on and despite their own special teams woes — they went 0-for-6 on the power play. The UW penalty kill returned the favor though, holding SCSU scoreless on seven power plays.
In the end, the fast start and stand-your-ground finish were enough to send UW to its first Frozen Four since winning the national title in 2006. The Badgers will face upset-minded RIT, which took down top-seeded Denver and third-seeded New Hampshire to be the first team to clinch a spot in Detroit.
“Wisconsin earned the victory,” SCSU head coach Bob Motzko said. “Almost start to finish, and they played one resilient hockey game.”
“It feels incredible,” Geoffrion said. “I know a lot of seniors have worked since our freshman year, coming after a championship team and seeing how those guys work and how hard they work.
“So for us to get the opportunity to possibly go to the national championship game is an incredible feeling right now, but the job’s not done yet.”