But the Badgers seemingly remained calm the next day at practice and headed into the weekend with confidence in themselves and freshman backup Shane Connelly.
In the words of UW coach Mike Eaves, "There is a big difference between practice and games." That truly showed as Denver snagged two more points with a 4-2 victory Saturday night, completing a sweep of the Badgers and moving within two games of their first-place perch.
Connelly played well all weekend, but it was clear that his presence had an effect on the players in front of him.
"When you equate it to another sport, it'd be like losing your starting quarterback or one of your starting pitchers," Eaves said. "It's a pretty big chunk of what we do."
"If you're losing someone, you're going to have some doubt in your head, and we took advantage of that," Denver forward Ryan Dingle said.
Robbie Earl scored two goals for the Badgers—two more times than they found the back of the net on Friday—but Denver sophomore Ryan Dingle matched Earl's performance and got some help as the Pioneers completed a road sweep and improved their record at the Kohl Center to 9-1-2 since 1998.
"Don't take this as we're making excuses, but it was an emotional week," UW captain Adam Burish said. "You lose one of your top players and there's questions—you've got a kid back there you've never seen before."
A week ago it seemed that No. 1 Wisconsin was well on its way to winning the McNaughton Cup with relative ease. One week later, the race for the WCHA title is wide open again.
All of the questions this week surrounded Connelly, but he filled in well again Saturday, making 19 saves and allowing just one even-strength goal. Instead, it was the Badger offense—or lack thereof after scoring 12 goals at Colorado College last week—which remained the story.
"Obviously it effects your team," Earl said of Elliott's absence. "But the big thing is we just got outplayed this weekend."
Earl got his second goal of the night with less than seven minutes remaining in the game to cut the Denver lead to 3-2, but Dingle struck back on the power play just two minutes later for his second of the night to ice the game. It was a contest that never really felt that close outside of the opening minutes.
What the Badgers could not do in 60 minutes Friday, they did in less than 60 seconds Saturday. But that would not matter in the long run.
Just 52 seconds after the puck dropped, an attempted pass from Burish slid through the crease right to Earl, who knocked home the puck to give the Badgers a 1-0 lead.
But while Wisconsin stole some early momentum, putting the first six shots on net in the game, it was a resilient Denver team which did not take long to come back.
At 7:37 in the first period, with the Pioneers on the power play, Gabe Gauthier threw a shot through traffic from above the left circle that found its way all the way to the goal past an unsuspecting Connelly to tie the game at one goal apiece.
Less than four minutes later, a gritty play by Dingle made UW defenseman Jeff Likens look silly and gave Denver the lead.
Likens attempted to rub Dingle off the puck as he skated into the Pioneers' offensive zone, but the sophomore winger skated right by and beat Connelly with a top-shelf shot from the left circle and Denver skated into the first intermission with a 2-1 advantage.
"That was a championship-type team … They have a swagger about them," Burish said. "I can tell right now why that team's won two championships."
The Pioneers padded their lead in the second period as Geoff Paukovich got his second goal of the year and second in as many games to make it 3-1, a lead which they held well into the third period.
Earl gave Wisconsin some hope with his second of the night at 13:31 of the third period, but it all came crashing down quickly as the Pioneers scored their third power play goal of the night to cap off the sweep.
Denver's power play finished 3-for-7 on the night, while the Badgers struggled on the man-advantage. Though Earl's second goal was on the power play, the Badgers finished 1-for-6 on the night and had just two total shots on their five power plays in the first two periods.
"They block shots like no one we've played against," Burish said. "They were all over the shooting lanes."
It was just a week ago that Colorado College head coach Scott Owens all but declared Wisconsin WCHA champions. My how things can change in just seven days.
"Funny how that changes in a week isn't it?" Eaves said.
Denver's sweep, coupled with Minnesota's sweep of Owens' team this weekend, cut the Badgers' (13-3-2 WCHA, 18-4-2 overall) lead to just four points over the Pioneers (11-5-2, 14-10-2) and Gophers (11-5-2, 16-6-4), with the Gophers coming to Madison next weekend.
Suffice it to say, the race for the McNaughton Cup just got a whole lot closer.