MADISON – Sitting on 19 wins since Jan.29, Wisconsin has gone from home ice and NCAA Tournament lock to needing to likely run the table in the WCHA Playoffs to clinch the league’s automatic bid.
Colorado College is in the same post season predicament, which makes it seem fitting that these two teams could play games one and two in a five-game series over the next two weekends.
“I am prepared for a marathon,” CC coach Scott Owens said, “but I am glad it’s going to be at 6,200 feet.”
Needing to take just two of four points on the weekend to clinch the final spot for home ice in the first round of the WCHA Playoffs, Colorado College took all the suspense out of the weekend’s battle for home ice, scoring two goals in the final 5-plus minutes to stun No.18 Wisconsin with a 3-2 victory.
The late flurry from the Tigers (19-15-3, 28 points) assured the visitors that it will finish no worse that the No.6 seed when the first round of league playoffs face-off, a big benefit consider Colorado College has become used to skating 12 freshmen and sophomores.
“We hung in there, we were patience, we did the things we had to do and we caught a break,” Owens said.
The break Owens referred to is twofold. One is that Wisconsin (19-14-4, 11-13-3, 25 points) has run into a proverbial wall, going winless in its last seven games to drop out of contention in both the league and PairWise standings.
Second is that the Badgers undoing was when it head first right into the wall … literally.
A late five-minute major penalty on sophomore John Ramage allowed Colorado College’s fourth-line center David Civitarese to score the winning tally off UW assistant captain Craig Smith’s stick at 17:05 in the third.
“Just to add misery to it all,” said UW coach Mike Eaves, adding that the penalty was justified. “It was a tough way to end the night because our kids did a lot of good things.”
Wisconsin’s first two-and-a-half periods could have been the best of its long season, but in what has become a theme of this now seven game winless streak, the foot slowly began to ease off the accelerator after Patrick Johnson gave Wisconsin a 2-1 lead at 32 seconds in the third.
Throw in the bad bounces and long ice shifts and it was another frustrating chapter.
Colorado College tied the game at 14:37 when Stephen Schultz’s goal wove its way through traffic and past UW goalie Brett Bennett (18 saves), a goal that the Badgers disputed when video replays showed winger Jaden Schwartz slashed Bennett microseconds before the puck arrived.
That ounce of bad luck set up Smith’s untimely bounce that put the Badgers down a goal and on the penalty kill for the remainder of the game.
“It’s just a couple bad bounces,” Smith said. “Guys played hard and we didn’t get rewarded for it.”
Colorado College was outshot 28-21, but managed to hold the Badgers with only three shots on goal in the final 19 minutes of the third period.
“It was just an OK game and then became a pretty good game about halfway through,” Owens said. “I was proud the way our guys stuck with it.”
In a game thought to be an offensive shootout, the early fireworks were conspicuous by their absence. Colorado College had given up five or more goals in the last nine games and Wisconsin had given up an average of 4.5 goals per game on its six game winless streak, but the two teams combined for only 16 first-period shots, 11 coming from Wisconsin.
The Tigers broke through that mediocrity early in the second. After being awarded an early power play, assistant captain Gabe Guentzel, on a backhanded pass from Stephen Schultz in the slot, one timed the puck pass Bennett at 2:18.
As spot on as Schultz’s pass was, UW right winger Derek Lee one-upped him with a back hand of his own, registering a no-look snipe that split two Tigers defenders and found a wide-open Jake Gardiner at the right post. A quick flick of the stick tied the game at one at 6:18.
Johnson’s 21st career goal early in the third seemed to give his team a needed lift after seemingly skating in reverse the past three weeks. As it turned out, the lift only last 14 minutes.
“This time of the season where it’s starting to come to an end, we need to get it going here and get one of those wins to get our momentum up,” Johnson said. “We just need one of those wins under our belt to get us going at the end of the season.”
Added Eaves: “I don’t think there is a man in that locker room that is throwing in the towel.”