It’s finally all coming together for the Wisconsin men’s hockey team.
With home ice in the WCHA playoffs on the line, the Badgers came through in a big way Saturday, winning 3-2 in its second game of a two-game series with WCHA leaders St. Cloud State to clinch a share of fourth place in the conference after losing vital points in a 4-2 loss the night before.
Coming into the weekend, the Badgers found themselves just four points out of first place in the conference, while they needed to earn three points over two games in order to secure home ice advantage on their own terms.
Having defeated University of Nebraska at Omaha on the road in back-to-back games March 1 and 2, UW held onto a slim one-point cushion over UNO for the sixth and final home ice slot heading into the weekend.
The puck stops here
Excluding SCSU goals in the first and final minutes of the game Saturday night, sophomore goaltender Joel Rumpel held the Huskies scoreless for over 58 consecutive minutes — recording 18 saves on 20 shots on goal along the way.
Coming into the weekend, St. Cloud State led the conference — along with Minnesota — in goals scored per game, averaging over three goals a contest.
Paired with the conference’s best scoring defense, Rumpel and Co. contained the Huskies offensive firepower to only two goals in the regular season finale — a night and day difference from just one day earlier.
Despite allowing an average of only 2.21 goals per game on the season — fourth best among goaltenders in WCHA play — a poor performance from Rumpel Friday had many wondering if fellow sophomore Landon Peterson would get his chance against St. Cloud State in the final game of the regular season.
Deadlocked with the top-ranked team in the WCHA for much of the final period of play Friday, UW seemed content to take the tie and keep their chances at a home ice playoff berth alive.
Then, with fewer than four minutes to go in the game, a mistake by Rumpel changed everything.
A desperation shot from SCSU’s Nick Jensen at an impossible angle from the right side of the net squeaked past Rumpel on the nearside of the pipe and trickled in.
“After giving up that bad third goal to give St. Cloud State the win last night, I knew I had to have a big game to respond,” Rumpel said. “I felt I did that job [Saturday], unlike [Friday]. Being a goalie you have to have short-term memory. You learn from it that night and forget about it.”
After the third-period collapse Friday night — giving up 3 goals in an 18-minute time frame — Wisconsin only needed a tie Saturday in order to clinch home ice.
In stark contrast to the struggling Wisconsin team that began the 2012-13 season with an unexpectedly poor 1-7-2 record, the Badgers proved against UNO last weekend they are a team capable of scoring in addition to their strong defense.
“This year has definitely been a long journey for us. We started off 1-7-2 and now we’re finishing in fourth place,” junior defenseman Frankie Simonelli said. “There’s a lot of gratitude in the locker room with being able to get home ice.
“It’s been a while for most of us, some of us have never even played in the playoffs at home before so this shows that we’ve come a long way and we’re all really excited about it.”
Taking the lead in the first minute Saturday with just 43 seconds off the clock, Wisconsin claimed the first goal of the game for the second night in a row after taking a first-period lead Friday night as well.
Over their last four games, the Badgers have scored first in each game, going on to win three of four in that span.
Wisconsin took a lead into the third period on all four occasions as well.
On the season, the Badgers have been tied or in the lead in 30 of their 36 contests this season and have gone on to win 16 of 22 games in which they held a lead entering the final period.
A sign of a much more confident Wisconsin men’s hockey team, head coach Mike Eaves believes the recent increase in offensive production has the team firing on all cylinders just in time as they prepare for Minnesota-Duluth in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
“To achieve home ice as a reward for their blood, sweat and tears and sticking through hard times, it’s a great thing for them,” Eaves said. “Now we get to go back to the Kohl Center and we get to practice there all week in preparation.”