In the battle of the WCHA's first place and last place teams, Wisconsin was lucky to come up with the 4-2 win over Michigan Tech.
After jumping out to a 3-0 first period lead, the Badgers (14-4-5 overall, 8-2-5 Western Collegiate Hockey Association) tried to coast to victory over the Huskies (3-11-4, 1-8-2) and very nearly failed.
Following his first game back since coaching the U.S. Junior Team to a gold medal in the World Championships, Badger coach Mike Eaves was visibly upset with the effort of the nation's third-ranked team in the second and third periods of Friday night's game.
"There were three things in that game that were great—we had a great start, we had great goaltending and there was a great work ethic by Michigan Tech in the second and third periods," Eaves said.
"I don't know how much we respected Michigan Tech," Eaves said. "A coach can only tell the guys ‘hey look they're a hardworking team.' You need to match their hard (work) in order to take the game and we did that the first period. We looked pretty sharp—had the crowd in the game and then we just sat back and said ‘I guess my job is done' and then we had to scramble like hell to win a game. Shame on us."
The lack of effort by the Badgers very nearly cost Wisconsin its record setting WCHA unbeaten streak (8-0-5), points in the league standings, and sole possession of first place in the WCHA.
Eaves credited the play of his goaltender as key to the Badger win. Bernd Bruckler had 32 saves while Tech goalies Cam Ellsworth and Bryce Luker totaled 37.
"I'm happy that we got the points, disappointed the way we played and let's see tomorrow if we learned our lesson," the Badger coach said.
The first place and the last place teams were in a battle midway through the third period when the Huskies pulled within one, 3-2. After the Badgers jumped out to the 3-0 first period lead, the Huskies clawed their way back and had the momentum. With just under four minutes to go they nearly scored the tying goal.
"It was impossible for me to see," Bruckler said of whether or not the puck went in the net.
"It was rolling toward the net and as quick as I could I made the only move I had there and that was to put my stick in front of the puck and that's what I did. Impossible for me to tell if it went in or not." Badger goaltender Bernd Bruckler said of the disputed goal.
After discussion with the goal judge, referee Pete Friesma disallowed the goal. The setback did nothing to deter the Huskies as they battled to the end before giving up an empty net goal to Robbie Earl with five seconds remaining.
A balanced scoring attack was Wisconsin's strength in the first period as the Badgers took an early lead on goals from Rene Bourque, and power play goals from Ross Carlson, and Tom Gilbert. Luckily for the Badgers it was enough.
Drawing first blood just 1:19 into the game tri-captain Rene Bourque picked up his seventh goal of the season. Bourque cruised down the left side of the ice and beat Cam Ellsworth far side with the wrist shot for his seventh goal of the season.
Carlson, a Duluth (Minn.) East grad, got his second goal and fourth point in just his third game as a Badger. With just two minutes remaining in the period, Carlson picked up the rebound at the corner of the cage and put it between Ellsworth's shoulder and the post into the upper far corner.
With just four-tenths of a second on the clock, Gilbert scored his sixth goal of the season. From a seemingly impossible angle along the goal line, Gilbert skimmed the puck along the ice and it coasted up Ellsworth's pad into the far corner of the net.
"It was about a one in a million shot. You just get lucky sometimes." Gilbert said.
The Huskies scored the lone second period goal at 9:43 of the period when Frank Werner used Badger defenseman Andy Wozniewski as a screen. Frank shot from the top of the right circle and beat Bernd Bruckler over the left shoulder.
Tech captain Brett Engelhardt pulled the Huskies within one at 9:51 of the third period. The Sheboygan, Wis. native one-timed the puck from the left circle past Bruckler for the power play goal and put the Huskies on the come back trail.
The rematch of the two teams commences at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Kohl Center. The question will be whether the Badgers bring their A game or will they continue to underestimate the hardworking Huskies.
At stake is their WCHA unbeaten streak and undisputed possession of the top spot in the WCHA standings.