At this point of the season the Wisconsin men's hockey team is playing do-or-die hockey. With their current standings in the PairWise rankings which mimic the NCAA tournament selections, the Badgers know they must keep winning hockey games from here on out to have a chance at earning an at-large bid.
Fourth seeded Wisconsin (18-12-7, 13-8-7 WCHA) took care of the business at hand Friday night, as the Badgers were able to defeat ninth seeded Minnesota-Duluth (14-18-5, 10-13-5 WCHA), 3-1, in the opening night of the WCHA playoffs.
The Badgers have been playing with a chip on their shoulder for months, according to team captain John Ramage.
"We've been playing playoff hockey since November, when we started off the season 1-7-2," Ramage said. "So it's just another game. That's the mentality we have. We know exactly what we need to do to win and we got the job done tonight."
Wisconsin played without the services of senior center Derek Lee on Friday, but received a typical performance from the grind-line that features Sean and Ryan Little, as well as center Jefferson Dahl.
"That line, Jefferson's line, they are really good at protecting the puck down low, working off the cycle and getting the puck to the net," freshman Nic Kerdiles said. "We definitely feed off those guys like that, who do that so we did that, and we brought it to the net and we got some tips in front. We got some goals, so we definitely fed off of Jefferson's line tonight."
And feed off them they did. While the Bulldogs took a 1-0 lead heading into the first intermission, it was Kerdiles who brought the Badgers back into the contest.
A face-off in the UMD zone was won by Mark Zengerle, and a shot from the point was a tipped in waist high by Kerdiles to tie the score at one.
Kerdiles would chip in an assist later in the game, and that wasn't a surprise to his head coach who expects his freshman to elevate his game come tournament time.
"Just the fact that its playoff games, I think he goes to a little bit of a higher level and tonight he did that again for us," Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said.
Wisconsin would eventually pull ahead late in the second period on Ramage's seventh goal of the season. The senior captain found space on the power-play, and was able to rip a shot past UMD goaltender Aaron Crandall to give the Badgers their first lead of the night.
An up-and-down third period would segway to the eventual game winner for the Badgers. After collecting a loose puck in his own zone, Zengerle fired a 180 foot shot towards the Bulldogs' net that found it's way across the line.
In all, Zengerle factored in on all three Wisconsin goals Friday night. That's what the Badgers need out of him according to Eaves.
"We needed his offense," Eaves noted. "One of the responsibilities he has, or the expectations that we have for him, is to help produce offense for us and he was in on every goal tonight."
"The empty-netter was a goal scorer's goal, an offensive player's goal. He kind of knew in his mind they were tired. He was either going to get it in the net or be an icing, which would have been okay, but he found the net."
While jumping out to the one-game lead is certainly an advantage, Wisconsin knows they must be even better going forward. The past two seasons Wisconsin has won game one, only to eventually drop the following two.
"They're going to be rejuvenated and get back to work," Ramage noted. "They are going to give us their best game. This is do or die for them and we know exactly what they are going to give us and we're going to have to fight and keep doing what we did tonight and get the win."