MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves said “great start” is the first thing written on his team’s board before a game.
Not too far behind should be the word “finish,” as that’s what the Badgers have done as of late on their way to becoming one of the hottest teams in college hockey, going 18-5-5 since Nov. 30.
Wisconsin (19-12-7) kept rolling on Saturday night at the Kohl Center, earning a 4-1 victory against Minnesota Duluth (14-19-5) and sweeping the best-of-three first-round WCHA playoff series to secure a bid in next weekend’s WCHA Final Five.
Jefferson Dahl scored a little less than three minutes into the game to open the flood gates for the Badgers, who scored three goals in the first eight minutes of the first period to take a 3-1 lead. The “great start” was the difference, which set up the Badgers’ “finish.”
” ‘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. “To score three like that is an explosion for us. That great start put [the Bulldogs] in a position they couldn’t get back from.”
Michael Mersch and Kevin Schulze were responsible for the two other first-period goals that set the Bulldogs back. Maintaining the early lead and closing out the win was Joel Rumpel, as the goalie recorded 29 saves in net for Wisconsin and allowed just one goal.
“To finally get back to the WCHA Final Five is huge for the guys,” John Ramage said. “We know we can be there. We knew we could be there the past couple seasons and didn’t get the job done.
“We got the job done this year and we’re excited to go make some noise.”
Dahl made noise early for Wisconsin, getting the Badgers on the board first at the 2:48 mark of the first period. Off assists from Sean Little and Frankie Simonelli, Dahl received the puck in front of net, then used a quick turnaround shot to score past Minnestoa Duluth goalie Aaron Crandall and give the Badgers a 1-0 lead.
“The bench jumped about a foot and a half when he scored,” Eaves said. “They know how many good things [Dahl's line] does, 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.”
The energy carried over for Wisconsin, as Mersch scored just 1:21 later, netting his WCHA-leading 23rd goal of the season. After being denied initially on a hard wraparound attempt from behind net, Mersch kept pursuing the puck on the play and jabbed it past to give the Badgers a 2-0 lead.
The third score in less than three minutes came from Justin Crandall of Minnesota Duluth, who capitalized on a defensive-zone turnover from Wisconsin and scored to quickly cut the Badgers’ lead to 2-1 at the 4:41 mark of the period.
Answering back for the Badgers was Schulze at the 7:53 mark of the period, as he scored his fourth goal of the season on a shot from the blue line to extend Wisconsin’s lead back to two goals at 3-1.
Wisconsin ended the first period with a 18-10 shots-on-goal advantage and finished the game with a 35-30 edge.
Tyler Barnes closed out the scoring at 10:39 of the third period, which combined with an earlier assist to complete a two-point night.
Assisting on Barnes’ score was Nic Kerdiles, who put together a multi-point night of his own with a pair of assists. He extended his point-scoring streak to the team’s season-best eight games (three goals, 10 assists).