It was mentioned time and again: the hardest thing to do is to end someone’s season — but Saturday night, the Wisconsin men’s hockey team made it look easy.
In a 4-1 rout over Minnesota-Duluth (14-19-5, 10-13-5 WCHA) — paired with a 3-1 decision Friday night — Wisconsin (19-12-7, 13-8-7 WCHA) earned its first trip to the WCHA Final Five in three years.
The Badgers looked poised and commanded the momentum much of the 120 minutes of play, but the opening eight minutes of game two made all the difference as three different Badgers netted goals, giving UW a 3-1 lead just less than eight minutes into the opening frame.
“We write the same things on our board every night and ‘great start’ is the first thing we write because stats tell us that the team that scores the first goal has the winning percentage in its favor,” head coach Mike Eaves said.
The Badgers outscored the Bulldogs 7-2 on the weekend, out-shooting them 33-27 and 35-30 in game one and game two, respectively.
Beyond Wisconsin’s fast start and overbearing offense Saturday night, it was able to stay out of the penalty box, giving UMD only two power play opportunities — one that lasted only 14 seconds due to overlapping penalties from UMD junior forward Joe Basaraba for roughing the goaltender and a cross-check from UW sophomore forward Brendan Woods 14 seconds later.
“It was a mature mindset,” Eaves said of staying out of the box. “It was a mindset and a maturity in that they did what they had to do. The penalty by Woodsy was a real good reminder that we can’t be doing that stuff. But that was the only time that we really lost our cool, so to speak.”
Coming into the weekend, UMD’s power play operated at a 24 percent clip, but after going 0-for-5 with the man-advantage on the weekend that fell to 23.4 percent — still strong enough for the No. 4 power play in the nation.
Beyond their ability to stay out of the penalty box, the Badgers scored the lone special-teams goal of the weekend as senior John Ramage netted one from the blue line Friday night to give UW a 2-1 lead.
Knowing how strong Minnesota-Duluth’s special teams were prior to the series, winning the special teams tilt was one of Wisconsin’s priorities heading into the weekend. UW credited its penalty kill success to simply closing up shooting lanes.
“They’re a skilled power play and they want to move it side-to-side and cross ice,” junior forward Jefferson Dahl said. “Just taking away those lanes and a big thing was getting in front of the pucks because those top two D-men want to shoot it. They are a shooting power play, and we just wanted to block shots and try to help (goaltender Joel) Rumpel out as much as possible.”
While Dahl helped the penalty kill find success, his line — which he centers with senior Ryan Little and junior Sean Little — set the tone for the series, grinding down low and wearing down UMD’s defense.
With an outstanding effort Friday night, Dahl and his linemates weren’t rewarded until Saturday as they netted the first goal of the contest at the 2:48 mark of the first period.
Working in the slot, Dahl took a short pass from Sean Little and spun around, sending the puck past UMD goaltender Aaron Crandall.
“The bench jumped about a foot and a half when he scored,” Eaves said. “Because they know how many good things [his line] does, and to get a little bit of a reward for that was pleasing to the team and pleasing to those guys because they do work so hard.”