Regardless of if you're playing at home or on the road, a quick start is always crucial to success, especially once the playoffs start. If a quick start is good, Wisconsin's start was great on Saturday night, as the Badgers were able to notch three first-period goals in the first eight minutes of the game.
Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves noted that a quick start was one of the points of emphasis before the Badgers (19-12-7) took the ice vs. Minnesota-Duluth (14-19-5) in the second game of the best-of-three WCHA playoff series.
"We write the same things on our board every night and ‘great start' is the first thing we write because stats tell us that the team that scores the first goal has the winning percentage in its favor," Eaves said. "And to score three like that is an explosion for us. That great start put [Duluth] in a position they couldn't get back from."
The Badgers scored just 2:48 into the opening stanza on Jefferson Dahl's fifth goal of the season, and were able to quickly extend the lead just over a minute later on Michael Mersch's team-leading 23rd.
The goal from Dahl was a reward for a line that doesn't always find its way to the score sheet, but consistently sets the tone for the way Wisconsin wants to play.
"The bench jumped about a foot and a half when he scored, because they know how many good things [his line] does," Eaves noted. "And to get a little bit of a reward for that was pleasing to the team and pleasing to those guys because they do work so hard."
Dahl agreed that the fast start set the tone for what the Badgers were trying to do on Saturday.
"We wanted to start out tonight with energy," Dahl said. "[Zengerle's] line got it going for us and it seemed like every line was rolling and getting shots to the net. To get the first one, and get the next one, too, was pretty big for us."
The Bulldogs cut the Badgers' lead to 2-1 just 30 seconds after the Mersch goal, but Minnesota-Duluth's momentum was short lived. A long-range shot from Wisconsin freshman defenseman Kevin Schulze found the back of the Bulldogs' net, giving the Badgers a 3-1 lead they never relinquished.
The goal was Wisconsin's third in the opening eight minutes of the contest, forcing UMD head coach Scott Sandelin to make a goaltending change. After stopping just three shots on six Badger attempts, Sandelin pulled starter Aaron Crandall in favor of freshman Matt McNeely.
The demotion had to be especially disappointing for Crandall, who was a one-time Wisconsin recruit. After falling out of favor with the Wisconsin coaching staff, Crandall settled on Minnesota-Duluth while the Badgers brought in transfer Brett Bennett from Boston University in the fall of 2009.
After a scoreless second period, Wisconsin junior winger Tyler Barnes put the game out of reach halfway through the third period on his 11th goal of the season. After spinning out of the corner, Barnes stepped around a UMD defenseman and was able to roof the puck on McNeely to give the Badgers a 4-1 cushion.
A late surge from UMD was all for naught, as Wisconsin goaltender Joel Rumpel came up big when he was needed the most down the stretch.
The win advances Wisconsin to the WCHA Final Five, which was one of the teams' goals coming into the season. Junior center Mark Zengerle noted after the game that this team never lost faith, despite its 1-7-2 start to the season.
"There was still a lot of hope in that room," Zengerle said. "Our record was pretty bad, there's no doubt about that. But I don't think we'd be here today if we hadn't thought that we could be. We could've put up a tent, pulled it in and called it a season, but everyone stuck it out. We knew we were a better team than our record showed."
The past two seasons, Wisconsin was knocked out in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, so advancing to the Final Five is an opportunity the Badgers aren't taking lightly, according to senior captain John Ramage.
"When you look back at the past two years, we've ended the season losing two-out-of-three in tough series," Ramage noted. "To finally get back to the WCHA Final Five, it's huge for the guys. We know we can be there. We knew we could be there the past couple years, but didn't get the job done. We got the job done this year and we're excited to go and make some noise out there."
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