After last Monday's 3-2 Overtime loss to start-up Penn State, Wisconsin (15-11-7, 11-7-7 WCHA) had a couple different directions they could go. They could fold up and call it a good season, or they could come back ready to play against No. 13 Nebraska Omaha (18-13-2, 14-9-2 WCHA) in a huge WCHA game that would go a long ways in deciding where the Badgers would finish the regular season.
Judging by their effort on Friday, the Badgers decided they still had a lot to play for.
In front of an announced crowd of 10,543 at the Century Link Center in Omaha, Wisconsin was able to hold off three separate rallies from the Mavericks to earn the 4-3 victory.
Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves talked about the kind of resiliency that Wisconsin would have to have in a hostile environment like the Century Link Center.
"We talked about it before the game, when you come into a rink like this, and you're going to play in an atmosphere like this, we talk about push backs, there's going to be swings of momentum," Eaves noted. "That was the talk before the game, and that was the talk on the bench during the game. Kids were talking about it, so their minds were in the right frame."
With the win on Friday, Wisconsin moved to 7-2-4 on the road this season. Eaves didn't have a great explanation for it, but noted that the ability to play a simple game on the road goes a long ways.
"Well, I think it's the young guys in the locker room buying into what we need to do on the road," Eaves said. "It's a simple game, and we've been able to execute that. And we've been able to get some timely goals too. That's been an important factor in getting those wins and playing well."
Every goal that Wisconsin scored Friday night, Omaha seemed to have an answer, with the exception of Brendan Woods' game winner with just 1:42 to play in the third period. The teams traded punches all night, but it was the Badgers who were able to land the extra upper-cut.
After the game, Woods noted that the Badgers had an answer for every push-back that Omaha presented them.
"Every time they got a goal, we found a way to push back."
Wisconsin started the scoring with a goal from Mark Zengerle just 3:08 into the first period. The goal was Zengerle's seventh of the season, and came on a rebound of his own shot.
Omaha quickly tied things up four minutes later on Ryan Walters' 20th goal of the season. With the goal, the one-time Gophers' commit picked up his 47th point of the season, and remains in a tie for the national scoring race with St. Lawrence forward Greg Carey.
The Badgers' leading scorer Michael Mersch would pull UW ahead 2-1 in the second period on a rebound goal, but UNO would swiftly bounce back early in the third on a goal from UNO defenseman Bryce Aneloski.
Not to be outdone, Wisconsin would re-gain the lead just moments later on Joseph LaBate's sixth goal of the season. Mersch carried the puck into the zone and sent a centering pass to the slot, and LaBate was able to re-direct a shot past UNO goaltender Ryan Massa for the 3-2 lead.
UNO was able to strike back on the power-play later in the period, as Andrej Sustr was able to locate a vacant puck and bury it past UW goaltender Joel Rumpel to tie things up at three. The goal was controversial, as UW defenseman Jake McCabe was taken out on the play from behind as UNO carried the puck up the ice.
"I will debate with the referee until the cows come home that it was a penalty at the blue-line that gave them an advantage coming into the zone," Eaves said with a smirk after the game.
Not to be outdone, Wisconsin's Brendan Woods picked up a loose puck in the slot with just under two minutes to play, and was able to send a wrister over the glove of Massa for the game winner.
Massa was making just his first regular season start of the season after initially deciding to take the season off for personal reasons. The sophomore didn't play poorly, but did give up four goals on 28 shots in the loss.
With senior center Derek Lee out of the lineup, Woods took it upon himself to step up and fill the void of Wisconsin's second leading scorer.
"With Lee out, I knew I had to step up. I was glad I could be able to contribute."
The goal turned out to be a big one for a Badger squad who can't afford any more losses the rest of the season. That fact wasn't lost on Woods after the game.
"We knew what we had to do, we weren't going to settle for a tie or a loss," Woods said.
Between the pipes Rumpel wasn't the sharpest he's ever been, but battled through and made some tough saves when it mattered the most.
"I don't think it was his easiest night," Eaves said. "But he battled through it and hung in there and played and Ok game."
Wisconsin will be back in action on Saturday as they attempt to sweep the Mavericks, and make a further push for home ice in the WCHA playoffs.
"Home ice is big and that's in the back of our minds," Woods said. "That's what we came here to do, hopefully earn four points, and go home in a good spot."
Eaves Post Game (Courtesy of Radio Free Omaha) Woods Post Game (Radio Free Omaha) Zengerle Post Game (Radio Free Omaha) Mersch Post Game (Radio Free Omaha)
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