Wisconsin Overcomes Doubters, Denver
by Scott Stone/CHN Reporter
MADISON, Wis. What a difference a week makes. A week ago Sunday, the Denver Pioneers were hoisting the MacNaughton cup as WCHA tournament champions and the Wisconsin Badgers were barely sneaking into the NCAA tournament. This Sunday will be different for both teams. For the Badgers, they will be playing in front of their home crowd for the right to move on to the Frozen Four in Denver. For the Pioneers, they will just be going home.
"It's been a great ride," said Pioneer head coach George Gwozdecky. "I think every team, especially in this league, goes through adversity and how you respond can make or break your season. As I told them in the locker room, I thank them all especially the seniors because it has been a very enjoyable year."
The Pioneers dropped a 6-2 decision Saturday night at the Kohl Center to slot the No. 3 seed in the Midwest, Wisconsin, against North Dakota on Sunday night.
With Colorado College and Air Force already having lost both of their games in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Denver was Colorado's last chance to have a home team represent it in the Frozen Four. With the loss, Colorado will have to do without its home state teams.
"We were all excited about the possibility of having three teams advance to Denver and right now we got no teams from Colorado," said Gwozdecky. "It's disappointing for us, obviously, as the host institution. We gave ourselves a chance. At times you gotta get lucky."
On the other side of the bench the grumblings have gotten louder. With widespread dissent of a sub-.500 team getting into the NCAA tournament, given a No. 3 and being placed on its home ice, destiny may be the name of the ride. Wisconsin is sitting in the front seat. Supposedly the Badgers aren't supposed to be there, and played with a chip on their shoulder tonight.
"We've heard it all week from the press and from around the rink that we did not deserve to be here," sophomore Michael Davies said. "We take that and motivate us to go out and play hockey because we have nothing to lose, because people doubt us anyway. We're trying to prove people wrong."
A raucous, home crowd is waiting for them Sunday in the championship game. Showing no signs of not playing in over a week, the Badgers overwhelmed the Pioneers with timely plays. Getting an early lead and getting the crowd into the game helped the arena ignite right with the Badger play.
"It's always good when you get a lead," said defenseman Jamie McBain, as the Badgers moved their record to 11-3 when they score first this season. "It makes the game a little easier, you're not running around as much and you don't have to force as many things. You can't sit back but it gives you confidence to keep things simple."
JUST A BOUNCE OF THE PUCK
Bounces that Denver has gotten all season and vice versa for the Badgers, went the other way Saturday. Denver hit four posts in the game and had a puck go over the goal line after senior goaltender Peter Mannino knocked it in trying to stop it from trickling in.
"It's funny how this game works at times," Gwozdecky said. "It's fractions of an inch. We had our chances. We had a number of great opportunities to score and missed or shot and hit posts."
A CHANGED TEAM?
Denver had split with the Badgers earlier this season in Denver. Denver's win was the controversial no-goal for Wisconsin that prevented a tie, which the WCHA later apologized for. Gwozdecky expressed how Wisconsin may have changed as a team since then.
"I sensed a team who had a second chance at life," Gwozdecky said. "It's not fun to sit after being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs and wonder if you get an extra chance to play another game. When you're given a second chance like that, you really certainly want to make the most of it."
WE'LL SEE YOU TOMORROW NIGHT
Familiar foes will once again take to the ice in Sunday's regional championship game. North Dakota and Wisconsin split a pair of games in Madison in November. Wisconsin took the first game and North Dakota fought back on Saturday night to earn the split.