So close, but so far away.
Wisconsin (16-12-7, 12-8-7 WCHA) came into Friday night's contest vs St. Cloud State (21-13-1, 18-8-1 WCHA) with the opportunity to do something it had never done in the Mike Eaves era. With a sweep and some help from around the league, UW had an outside chance at clinching a share of the WCHA regular season title.
A 4-2 loss to St. Cloud State Friday night dashed those hopes.
In front of an announced crowd of just 3,863 at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison, St. Cloud was able to erase leads of 1-0 and 2-1 to clinch its first ever MacNaughton Cup.
The game-winner came on a fluke shot from Husky defenseman Nick Jensen. The junior blue-liner carried the puck into the Wisconsin zone to the left of UW goaltender Joel Rumpel and fired a low shot from below the circles that found a tiny hole between Rumpel's pads with 3:35 to play in the third period.
St. Cloud iced the contest with an empty-net goal from fifth-year senior Drew LeBlanc with 55 seconds to play.
Wisconsin rarely gives up third-period leads, and that seemed to frustrate head coach Mike Eaves after the game.
"We let it slip away."
The Jensen goal was a tough one to give up for Rumpel, who has played as well as any net-minder in the countryover the second half of the season. For the night, Wisconsin's sophomore goalie finished with 21 saves on 24 shots.
"Definitely my fault, would have liked to have that one back," Rumpel said after the game.
The Badgers took the first lead of the night on the power-play with Joseph LaBate's seventh goal of the season. John Ramage found LaBate on the weak-side of the ice and the sophomore did the rest, wristing a shot past St. Cloud goaltender Ryan Faragher. Nic Kerdiles also assisted on the play.
St. Cloud would even the score in the second period on freshman Jonny Brodzinski's 18th goal of the season. While on the power-play, LeBlanc sent a beautiful back-handed saucer pass to Brodzinski, who one-timed a shot past Rumpel to tie things at one.
Wisconsin got back ahead three minutes later. Kerdiles carried the puck into the St. Cloud zone down the left side boards with speed and found a streaking Tyler Barnes coming in back-door. The beautiful vision from Kerdiles allowed an easy tap in for Barnes' 10th goal of the season.
With the goal, Barnes has now recorded four goals and 10 points in his past seven games since being benched for missing a team meeting during the Bemidji State series.
The assist was Kerdiles' second of the night and extended his points streak to five games. The freshman winger has 14 points in his past 13 games played.
Wisconsin went into the second intermission with a lead, but the Huskies erased that just 1:11 into the third period. Once again it was the freshman Brodzinski, as his fluttering shot tipped off a stick of a UW player and fooled Rumpel to tie the score at two.
With the ability to clinch a share of the MacNaughton Cup on the line, St. Cloud was able to get the eventual game-winner on Jensen's fluke shot with 3:35 to play in the third period.
Wisconsin didn't play poorly on Friday night, but puck luck didn't seem to be on the Badgers' side.
"They worked hard, I can't take anything away from them, but I thought we had a good game too," Kerdiles said after the game. "Maybe it's one that the hockey gods didn't want us to have. We're ready to go back tomorrow and try to win home ice."
The loss eliminates Wisconsin from the MacNaughton Cup race, and puts them in jeopardy of even hosting a first-round playoff series. The best the Badgers can finish now is fourth if North Dakota sweeps Minnesota State, and Wisconsin beats St. Cloud on Saturday.
In terms of the PairWise rankings that determine NCAA tournament at-large births, the Badgers actually moved up despite the loss. Thanks to Colorado College & Northern Michigan falling off the TUC cliff, UW moved from No. 20 to No. 17 in the PairWise. The Badgers could move as high as No. 16 if Michigan State knocks off Alaska in the late game Friday night.
While the fans and the media are left to speculate about playoff scenarios and mathematical formulations, Eaves noted that all that matters for his club is winning on Saturday night.
"Nothing changes for us, we have to win."
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