MADISON – One-tenth inch the other way and the momentum would have drastically shifted in Wisconsin’s favor.
Punched in the mouth early by a Bemidji State team that scored twice in a 29-second span in the opening 2 minutes, 30 seconds, UW assistant captain Jake Gardiner started to slowly raise his hands in triumph when his rocket shot ricocheted off the right post and caromed toward the net.
It wasn’t until seven minutes later when a video review showed the puck dancing along the goal line before sliding out of harm’s way that the Badgers were officially denied a chance to cut into the momentum.
A young team like Wisconsin with its 11 freshmen and sophomores on the roster might have withered but the Badgers are no longer using youth as an excuse.
“It’s a big wake-up call anytime you are down in the game,” UW assistant captain Craig Smith said. “Your back is up against the wall and it’s fight or flight.”
Luckily, the sophomore Smith chose the former, which proved vital for a Wisconsin team that is becoming notorious for starting slow. Smith scored twice, including the game winner, and blocked a key shot in the waning minutes, helping No.16 Wisconsin slowly regained enough momentum to defeat Bemidji State, 3-2, in front of 11,358 Friday night.
In addition to its slow start, Wisconsin (9-7-3, 5-6-2 WCHA) uncharacteristically blocked only nine shots and never really found a consistent rhythm, things that were expressed in a UW locker room that was full of head scratchers after it completed their 14th game of scoring one goal or less in the opening period.
“We might have to try some new things in warm-ups,” said UW coach Mike Eaves. “We might have to do some physical drills to get these guys ready to play … I haven’t solved that riddle yet with this young group.”
The real riddle was where the momentum started to turn. Eaves said the regrouping after Gardiner’s no goal was a ‘tiny bit’ in the right direction, a perfect picture of a night where the momentum was always a slow shift that continued with Smith’s power play tally at 12:16 in the first and with senior Podge Turnbull knuckling a puck in just past the blue line at 12:12 in the second, tying the score.
“Our focus throughout the whole game was to stick with our game plan,” Turnbull said. “Things weren’t going right at times. Things were going right at times, and we knew that going into the locker room at the third.”
That rallying cry was assisted by two of Bemidji State’s six penalties coming at overlapping times. After junior Shea Walters was given a game misconduct for checking from behind at the end of the second, giving UW 2:28 of power play time at the start of third defenseman Brad Hunt was whistled for interference with 30 seconds left in Wisconsin’s man advantage.
The result was Smith finding a gab in the Beavers’ defense and whistling a puck past BSU goalie Dan Bakala (25 saves) in the slot for the game winner 2:32 into the third.
UW has trailed four times this season after one period and have come back to earn points in all the contests (2-0-2).
“I wish we would have had a better third period,” Bemidji State Coach Tom Serratore said. “They weren’t that productive on that five-minute major and we were so close to killing it off. What a momentum changer. It deflated them, elevated our bench a little bit, so who knows what happens after that … It was tough to rebound after that.”
Making its first appearance at the Kohl Center, Bemidji State (5-9-1, 4-8-1 WCHA) looked nothing like the squad Badgers fans remember from the 2006 NCAA Tournament. A little less than five years after Wisconsin blanked the Bemidji State, 4-0, in the Midwest regional, the Beavers never gave the impression they were intimidated by the environment.
Freshman Radoslav Illo backhanded a bouncing puck past UW goalie Scott Gudmandson (25 saves) at 2:01 and sophomore center and Madison native Jordan George scored his team leading 17th point after assistant captain Ian Lowe threaded a pass in traffic to him for a wide-open shot at the right post.
But the next goal never could materialize despite the chances. Drew Fisher couldn’t convert a 2-on-1 in the first that would have made the score 3-0 and George had one of the better chances with the puck loose at the right post but Smith slid in front, preventing George from lifting the puck into the net.
“We had things going right off the get go,” said George, who estimated 15 family members in attendance, “but we knew they were going to keep coming and we didn’t take care of pucks, which cost us.”
For another off night, Smith was willing to do whatever it took to prevent a tying tally.
“It was a pretty heated moment there at the end (and) you’re trying to do everything that you can to get the win for the team,” Smith said. “If you are laying down blocking a shot, that’s what you have to do.”