Madison, Wis.—The question following an improbable come-from-behind win Friday, was how would Wisconsin respond?
This was not just any team the Badgers had used four unanswered goals to beat, 4-3, in overtime. This was the No. 1 team in the country for the past 13 weeks and every one knew North Dakota would come out with a flurry in the series' encore.
The Fighting Sioux did and the Badgers' response was emphatic.
Wisconsin scored three goals in the second period on its way to a 5-2 win Saturday, sweeping North Dakota to close within two points of first place in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. The Badgers (17-9-6 overall, 11-6-5 WCHA) remain in a third-place tie with St. Cloud State, which also won Saturday, though those teams have each played two more games than the rest of the conference's top five teams.
The Sioux (19-5-3, 13-4-3) were swept for the first time all season and fell into a tie for first place with Minnesota-Duluth.
The Badgers responded Saturday behind junior goaltender Bernd Bruckler, who weathered a game-long barrage to enable UW to take command as the game wore on.
They responded with three second-period goals after North Dakota had again taken the initial lead.
They responded when the Fighting Sioux, trailing 4-1 early in the third period with their backs against the wall, made another rally, peppering the Badgers and raising the pitch of a very physical game.
Wisconsin entered this series reeling, having lost five of its last seven (1-5-1) while scoring more than two goals in a game only once in that stretch. The team had fallen to No. 14 in the Pairwise rankings, teetering on the brink of the playoff bubble.
The Badgers, though, had been looking forward to this one for quite some time, with coach Mike Eaves frequently calling it a "measuring stick" for his team. Now, with three series remaining, Wisconsin finds itself again in contention for the WCHA title and perhaps much more.
The question that remains then, is does Wisconsin consider itself a national championship contender?
"We are moving toward that," Eaves said. "We are forging ourself into a pretty good team and we will continue to forge ourselves right until the end of the year and into the playoffs.
"Are we there yet? No. Are we getting there? We are on the right road."
Wisconsin was outshot 43-23 Saturday, but Bruckler made 41 saves for a series-total 66—his third straight series with at least 60 saves.
"He has been our backbone all year and what a goaltender gives a team, especially a young team, is that ability to shake off mistakes and have short memories…and go and play," Eaves said.
Freshman wing Brady Murray scored his first of two goals early in the second period to give North Dakota a 1-0 lead, but midway through the period Wisconsin's leading scorer, sophomore forward Ryan MacMurchy, snapped a 12-game goal scoring drought to tie it.
"It was a long time for sure," MacMurchy said. "I tried to have my nap today, pregame nap, and I just couldn't sleep—I just really wanted one real bad…I finally got it through and it just feels great."
Five minutes later, freshman center Jake Dowell took advantage of a turnover in the neutral zone, skated to the slot and used Sioux freshman defenseman Matt Smaby as a screen, flinging a wrist shot past freshman netminder Jordan Parise. The goal ended an 11-game drought for Dowell.
Then, at 18:26 in the second, freshman wing Robbie Earl, who had a hat trick in Friday's win, made a brilliant play in the slot, stick-handling the puck away from a sliding Sioux player and shelving it past Parise.
"For whatever reason, we found our offense this weekend," Eaves said. "That was the difference—we got the goals when we needed to."
North Dakota replaced Parise in net with junior Jake Brandt to start the third period and just as he did in Friday's game, Brandt misplayed a puck to help Wisconsin score. After freshman defenseman Ryan Suter chipped the puck toward Brandt from the blue line, the goalie tried to sweep it up ice but ended up making a perfect pass to Badger senior wing Rene Bourque, who buried the point-blank opportunity.
Far from wilting, the Fighting Sioux picked up their play and put 17 shots on goal in the third period. Bruckler, though, stood tall, only allowing Murray's second tally with less than eight minutes to play.
Bourque capped the scoring with an empty-netter with 57 seconds left.
"We are for real, we are not no joke," Bourque said. "We have been looking forward to this series for a while and we proved ourselves tonight and last night. It's a job well done."
Score by period
Shots on goal by period
ND 1 - Brady Murray (12) from Zach Parise (19) and Brandon Bochenski (21), PPG, at 3:48
UW 1 - Ryan MacMurchy (13) from John Funk (2) and Ryan Suter (13) at 10:07
UW 2 - Jake Dowell (4) from Ross Carlson (9) and Andy Wozniewski (7) at 15:03
UW 3 - Robbie Earl (12) from Andrew Joudrey (14) at 18:26
UW 4 - Rene Bourque (11) unassisted at 1:17
ND 2 - Murray (13) from Bochenski (22) and Z. Parise (20) at 12:17
UW 5 - Bourque (12) unassisted, ENG, at 19:03
ND - Jordan Parise (40:00) - 10 saves, 3 goals allowed
ND - Jake Brandt (19:12) - 8, 1
UW - Bernd Bruckler (60:00) - 41, 2