MADISON, Wis.—The perplexed look that graced Wisconsin men's hockey coach Mike Eaves' face often Saturday night could have easily represented the 15,000-plus in attendance at the sold-out Kohl Center.
Minnesota-Duluth and Wisconsin, two of the best teams in the country, played like they fully understood that this game had no bearing on their standings in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, even if it could impact their seeds in the NCAA tournament down the road.
"It was a struggle all night," Eaves said. "I don't think we could walk a straight line if we wanted to. I hadn't seen us pass like that and miss passes in a long time. There was some frustration built out there…it was just a sloppy game."
Each team started a little-used freshman reserve goaltender and played a ragged brand of hockey. The 104 minutes in penalties the teams combined for, including 42 minors, did not exactly push along the choppy action. The frequent trips to penalty box were a product of a seemingly apoplectic animosity between the players and a quality of officiating that could be generously construed as in need of improvement, marring a game that was in little need of degradation.
"It was just one of those games," senior defenseman Andy Wozniewski said. "We got kind of caught up in the tussles with them and kind of played to their game. I don't think it's too much a big deal now. We just have to look forward to the playoffs."
The Bulldogs did a much better job keeping their composure than Wisconsin, especially Duluth's first line, forwards Junior Lessard, Evan Schwabe and Justin Williams, which scored all three of the Bulldogs' even-strength goals.
Lessard was particularly sharp, skating circles around the Badgers and contributing two goals in addition to a nifty play in which he skated behind Wisconsin's net, drew the attention of four Badgers, including goalie Brian Elliott, and feathered a perfect pass to Williams in front of the net for the game's opening goal.
"The key guys came through," Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said. "We got good goal tending, our penalty kill came through and we played a solid game for 60 minutes. That is a great way to end the year going into next week on a positive and you can prepare for the next season because this season is done now."
Wisconsin struggled to generate high-quality scoring chances, but Bulldog netminder Josh Johnson did come up with an impressive 29 saves, maintaining a shutout until Adam Burish solved him with 38.8 seconds left in the game.
The damage, though, was long since done.
"It was a bad night," Eaves said. "I hope we got it all out of our system. We have had very few real bad nights and tonight was a bad one for us. I hope we cleansed ourself and we can refocus next week and get playing."
Wisconsin finished the regular season 14-7-7 in WCHA play, 20-10-8 overall and will host Alaska-Anchorage in the best-of-three first round of the conference playoffs, while second-place Duluth (19-7-2, 23-10-4) plays host to Minnesota State. If Duluth and Wisconsin each win next week they will face off again two weeks from now in the WCHA Final Five, a possibility Wisconsin relishes.
"Everybody in our locker room knows we can beat them if we play our game," senior wing Rene Bourque said. "This was probably the worst two games we have played all year. We just couldn't do anything right. All the guys are ready to play them again. Hopefully we are going to see them again because I think we are going to beat them."
Joudrey, Licari injured Saturday
Wisconsin's night got off in the wrong direction when center Andrew Joudrey was injured prior to the game. Then, with the game winding down, forward Nick Licari was slashed in the back of leg by Duluth's Ryan Swanson, and had to be helped off the ice. Swanson was called or a minor penalty for the slash but picked up an additional double-minor after getting into a fight with Badger defenseman Tom Gilbert following the hit on Licari. Gilbert was also called for a double-minor for roughing, putting a final stamp on a penalty-plagued evening.
Following the game, Eaves did not know the nature of the injuries.