ST. PAUL, Minn. — The University of Wisconsin men's hockey team implemented a do-or-die attitude about six weeks ago after getting swept at Colorado College and watching its defense of a national title start to slip away.
In their first actual win-or-go-home game this season, the Badgers showed they could, in fact, play their best hockey with their backs against the wall.
The individual goals weren't always pretty, but the overall effort was a thing of beauty as No. 20 Wisconsin thumped Michigan Tech 4-0 in the WCHA Final Five play-in game Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center.
UW moved one step closer to a WCHA tournament title and an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament, where the Badgers could play to defend their 2006 title.
"It's just a mindset for our whole team. You don't want too much of 'do-or-die', but it is our season, we have to keep winning to keep playing," UW forward Andrew Joudrey said. "We're just trying to keep that going."
The Badgers (18-17-4) and Huskies (18-17-5) ranked first and second, respectively, in goals allowed during the regular season. Each program sustained that trend at their opening rounds last weekend when the two teams combined to surrender just six goals in five games.
Both teams figured this game to be an offensive struggle and planned to simply throw a lot of pucks at the net. Head coach Mike Eaves' squad did so with much more success and routed the only team that has beaten Wisconsin since Feb. 3.
"We've been preaching, part of the way you manufacture goals is getting pucks and bodies at the net," Eaves said. "We've been doing that more consistently here down the stretch."
Michigan Tech goalie Michael-Lee Teslak gave up just three goals in as many games when the Huskies knocked off Colorado College in the opening round but wasn't as fortunate against the Badgers. Just 1:42 into Thursday's contest, UW forward Blake Geoffrion intended a centering pass for linemate Matthew Ford, but MTU defenseman Geoff Kinrade's stick tipped the puck past his own netminder for Geoffrion's second goal of the season.
The Badgers' No. 3 line of Geoffrion, Ford and center Andy Brandt created a plethora of scoring opportunities, compiled nine shots on goal between them and were pesky from the first whistle until the last.
"The third line, we branded ourselves on being pretty physical all night long," Geoffrion said. "[With] a lot of back pressure, we created a lot of our scoring chances, just kept it simple and played hard."
UW's second goal bore similarity to its first, as Wisconsin's struggling power play, which hadn't found the score sheet since Feb. 24, took advantage of the NHL-sized rink in the second period.
Forward Michael Davies, who notched a pair of goals the last time he took on the Huskies (including that previous power-play tally), tried to direct a centering pass to forward Jake Dowell, but the puck bounced off MTU forward Peter Rouleau and through Teslak's legs to give the Badgers a 2-0 lead.
Ninety-two seconds after Davies' goal, Joudrey sent a 20-foot shot off the left post and in for his ninth goal of the season. Defensemen Kyle Klubertanz and Joe Piskula were credited with assists, and Joudrey's credit went to Wisconsin's third line that had worn down the MTU defense and allowed UW's captain an easy opportunity.
"They had a great shift, Michigan Tech was tired and I jumped on the ice and took advantage of it," said Joudrey of the third line. "They provided energy all night long.
"That's what it takes, you need four lines going to win in the playoffs, and fortunately that happened tonight."
And in the third period, Wisconsin showed it wasn't done just yet. Klubertanz dumped the puck into the right corner, and forward Ben Street found forward Tom Gorowsky wide open in front of the net with a nifty pass that Gorowsky redirected past Teslak. The Huskies had chances to put a body on both Street and Gorowsky but didn't get the job done and allowed the Badgers an exclamation mark on their masterpiece.
Not to be forgotten in the shuffle of Wisconsin's offensive prowess, Brian Elliott was outstanding in net for the Badgers. The senior added to his already-stellar postseason numbers with 26 saves and his fifth career shutout, upping his record to 11-2 in the playoffs.
"To win in the playoffs, you have to have great goaltending," Joudrey said. "Hopefully, we can keep providing some offense for him and helping him out."
With the win, Wisconsin sets up a semifinal showdown with a team that needs no introduction. The top-seeded Minnesota Golden Gophers (18-7-3) await the upstart Badgers in Friday's second semifinal at 7:07 p.m., with the victor advancing to the elusive WCHA title game.
"It's just going to be so fun," Eaves said. "It'll be our second game in two nights, but it will seem like our first game, just because of our opponents, the building, the enthusiasm.
"This is why you train all summer, because of games and moments like this when you can play in front of this crowd," Eaves added. "It's just pure fun."
Game notes: Elliott's goose egg was the 16th of his career, which ties him for the all-time WCHA lead with former CC goaltender and current UW women's volunteer goalie coach Jeff Sanger. … UW defenseman Jeff Likens showed no ill effects from the leg injury he sustained last Saturday at Denver. … Referee Todd Anderson was hit in the face with an errant stick late in the first period, leaving a trail of blood on the ice by the Badgers' bench. After a short delay, play resumed with Anderson stitched up and back in the game. … A crowd of 16,449 was on hand at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center, the largest attendance for a UW hockey game this season.