Wisconsin found itself in a familiar situation Saturday night playing in the conference tournament championship game for the second year in a row. Although the Badgers didn’t have to win Saturday night to secure a NCAA tournament berth like last season, they still found themselves with their backs against the wall trailing Ohio State by two with less than seven minutes to go in the third. Then, in the blink of an eye, Wisconsin tallied two scores in 28 seconds to tie the game, and eventually overcame the Buckeyes in overtime 5-4 to win the inaugural Big Ten tournament championship.
For much of the game the Buckeyes (18-14-5) looked to be the better team and jumped out to a 2-0 lead over Wisconsin in just the first eight minutes and change in the first period of play.
With Ohio State unlikely to make the tournament if it lost, the Buckeyes found themselves in the very same shoes Wisconsin was in a year ago, which was key to their early lead more than anything Wisconsin was doing wrong.
“We’re trying to end their season. That’s a very difficult thing to do,” Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves said. “They were playing at a higher desperate rate. We were playing for a championship; they were playing for their lives. There was a gap there.”
But Wisconsin (24-10-2), despite trailing by two goals twice throughout the game in the beginning and in the fading minutes of the third, dug deep and battled back within just a matter of seconds in the high scoring affair.
Ohio State extended its lead to 4-2 with just 6:52 left in the game when Tanner Fritz ripped a wrister to the far post past Wisconsin goaltender Joel Rumpel, who collected 28 saves in the win. The Badgers looked like they had fallen off the cliff on the way to a disheartening defeat.
But the eight member senior class had been on the brink of adversity before. They were part of a group that started last season off with a 1-7-2 and this year they fell from a No. 2 ranking at the beginning of the year when the Badgers got swept handily 9-2, and 7-3 by Boston College and Boston University.
With those experiences in hand, the seniors put Wisconsin right back in the game when it appeared all hope might have been lost.
“Through good times, bad times, they’re able to give each other feedback and do it in a good way. It’s helped us grow into the team that we are now,” Eaves said of the senior leadership.
It started on the very next shift after Ohio State pushed its lead to two. Just twenty seconds after Ohio State had scored, Morgan Zulinick blasted a shot from the left point, which was initially stopped by OSU goaltender Christian Frey (31 saves). But with a pileup of bodies in front of Frey, senior center Jefferson Dahl found himself with the biscuit to the left of the cage and promptly fired home the rebound into the back of the cage to bring the deficit to just one at the 13:28 mark.
Dahl provided the starting point and senior winger Tyler Barnes, part of the first forward line, picked up right where Dahl had left off when he came onto the ice for his next shift. Just 28 seconds after Dahl had scored, Barnes slipped the puck past Frey, and in a matter of 48 seconds the entire game had shifted.
“We’re a resilient group,” Mark Zengerle, who assisted on Barnes goal, said. “It started with Jefferson [Dahl], the next shift. Sometimes it might be tough going down two with seven minutes left. They came out right away and got that next goal, 4-3, gained a little more confidence in our group, the bench. The rest of the game there, we were buzzing.”
Although Wisconsin clearly had gained a great deal of momentum, neither team could find the back of the net the rest of the way in regulation. That set the stage for sudden death overtime and it just so happened that another senior answered the bell for Wisconsin.
Despite being known more for his play-making ability in his Wisconsin career, Mark Zengerle, who also had two assists in the game, entered the scoring role 7:48 into the first overtime when he tracked down his own shot at the right side of the net and pushed it past Frey as a frenzy of sticks and gloves ensued on the ice.
It wasn’t a do-or-die situation for Wisconsin, but the comeback still brought with it valuable lessons for the Badgers as they head into the NCAA tournament next weekend and along with it a Big Ten Tournament Championship.
“We have made the analogy that going into the playoffs in this tournament and beyond is much like trying to climb Mt. Everest. The higher up you go, the less oxygen there is in the air, the games get tougher. We had to overcome being behind. Those are good lessons to put in the hip pocket as we go into next weekend because the games are going to be pretty much similar to this,” Eaves said.
You’re going to have to battle through some things, adversity of being behind, stay with it, stay patient. I thought our group showed some maturity getting behind twice by two goals. That maturity and that steely resolve paid off for us.”
Before last season Wisconsin hadn’t won a tournament championship in the old WCHA before 1998. Now, Wisconsin has won back-to-back tournament championships, albeit in different leagues, which should earn them a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament.