ST. PAUL, Minn. — At least one team thought they had something to prove here Saturday afternoon in the WCHA Final Five third-place game.
From the minute the puck dropped, the contest was all Wisconsin as the Badgers dictated the pace, energy and scoring against No. 1 Minnesota.
The outcome? An identical match to the 4-0 shutout they posted over the Gophers in St. Paul’s sister city back in December, though this one probably secured the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament by putting the Badgers on top of the PairWise rankings.
“I think our team responded very well today,” Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves said. “We played the game we needed to play.”
“Every line of ours was going,” UW junior Ross Carlson said. “We got the puck in and went right at their D right away. I think that was a big start for us.”
From the get-go, it was noticeable that the Badgers were hungry and thought they still had something to prove — even if they did not necessarily know the impact it may have had on their NCAA seed.
“We looked at it as the rubber match between two good teams in our league. It was 2-2 in the season series,” UW goalie Brian Elliott said. “We really wanted to get out there and win that…we didn’t really think about what it would do until the end of the game.”
“Nobody was looking at this as just a third-place game,” Eaves said. “There was a lot of pride on the line. This was 1 and 2 in the RPI rankings, this was a rubber match. It was a big game.”
On the other bench, the Gophers looked like a team that, one night earlier, had fought back hard only to lose 8-7 in overtime to St. Cloud State.
Not only that, it did not appear that they could find anything to play for, despite the fact that the No. 1 overall seed was on the line, they could have gained momentum heading into the NCAA Tournament and this was the rubber match with their arch-rival.
“There were a lot of blank stares,” Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said. “I wasn’t surprised… It was tough to summon that energy.”
Once again, it did not take UW long to get started. Andrew Joudrey capitalized on a breakaway to give the Badgers an early lead after Jake Dowell won a battle for the puck in the neutral zone and then chipped it forward.
Joudrey got ahead of the entire Minnesota team and skated in all alone, faking a far-corner shot before back-handing the puck through Kellen Briggs’ legs just 3:30 into the contest. It was the 11th time the Badgers scored in the opening five minutes of a game this year.
From there, Wisconsin established a pace that — although it lulled the 16,134 at the Xcel Energy Center nearly into a nap — they will need to probably continue to have a successful postseason run.
With less than two minutes remaining in the first period, Elliott came up with what probably turned out to be the save of the game. He stopped an initial shot, but the puck squirted through his legs and was left up-for-grabs behind him in the crease. He quickly pounced on it.
The junior turned in his sixth shutout of the season, improving upon his single-season school record. It also marked the ninth shutout of his career, tying that UW record.
“I don’t even know what back is,” Elliott said when asked if he was back to where he was before his injury. “You can’t really describe your play before or after an injury. I have the confidence in myself and my teammates that we can bring that kind of game every night. Now it’s just four more games the rest of the season.”
If that was not enough, Elliott now boasts 124 straight minutes of shutout play against Minnesota. He missed the series between the two teams in January.
There were plenty of turnovers by the Gophers and probably as many icings by the Badgers, but for UW, that is what got the job done.
“We all had great games. The defensive corps just pushed them to the outside and they couldn’t get shots or rebounds or anything,” Elliott said. “I don’t think it was any one person that did anything that special.”
Midway through the second period, another mini-chapter was penned in the story of Madison natives Jack Skille and Phil Kessel. With Kessel in the penalty box and the teams playing four-on-four, Skille scored his 12th goal of the season to make it 2-0 UW.
In Friday night’s contest against North Dakota, the Badgers were unable to get a third goal to put the game away early. While it did not necessarily come early Saturday, they got that clincher. Granted, by then they probably were not going to need it.
But Carlson’s rebound tally at 3:02 in the third period took away whatever slight puff of air that may have been in the sails of Minnesota. And Robbie Earl’s team-leading 21st goal of the year capped the scoring at 10:58 of the final frame.
The win marks the first time since 1998 that Wisconsin will go into the NCAA Tournament coming off a victory and the Badgers will most likely learn of their No. 1 overall seed and placement in the Green Bay Regional during Sunday morning’s selection show.