DENVER – It was easy to take the pulse of the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team during the regular season. All you had to do was corral Justin Schultz and Mark Zengerle and bring the proper instrumentation.
The Badgers were winless in games when Schultz, the junior defenseman who leads the club in goals, and Zengerle, the sophomore center who paces the team in points, were both held off the score sheet.
Conversely, UW was unbeaten in outings when the dynamic duo both had two points or more.
The playoffs tend to develop their own funky rhythm, though, which is what happened Friday night when the 10th-seeded Badgers knocked off third-seeded Denver 1-0 to open a best-of-three Western Collegiate Hockey Association series before an announced crowd of 4,458 at Magness Arena.
Sophomore right winger Sean Little, who came into his first postseason game with one goal in 40 career outings, broke a scoreless tie with 5 minutes, 50 seconds left in the third period and became an unlikely savior.
“It happens more times than not,” UW coach Mike Eaves said of the obscure-hero syndrome, “that somebody (comes through) other than the guys you think it will be.”
With another road victory at 8 p.m. Saturday, the Badgers (17-16-2 overall) would advance to the WCHA Final Five on March 15 to 17 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.
After winning once in 10 games away from home through mid-February, they have prevailed four out of the past five times on the road and are playing with all sorts of confidence.
Still, the Badgers may recall a similar circumstance last season.
That’s when the Badgers won their playoff series opener at Colorado College only to drop a pair of one-goal decisions, ending their season.
“We’re not looking to go to Sunday,” UW freshman defenseman Jake McCabe said after he helped set up the decisive conversion. “We’re going to end this (tonight).”
The decision meant the Badgers continued a remarkable body of postseason work against Denver. They are now 13-1, including a 10-1 mark in the WCHA playoffs and a 4-0 record here.
Decades of good karma continued this night thanks in large part to the brilliant work of freshman goaltender Joel Rumpel, who made 28 saves and became the first rookie in program history to record three shutouts in a season.
“He was by far our best player on the ice tonight,” Little said.
“It’s playoff hockey now, so everybody’s got to bring their game to the next level,” Rumpel said. “I was just seeing the puck really well tonight.”
UW was 0-5 during the regular season when both Schultz and Zengerle were held scoreless, 2-8 when Schultz was kept off the score sheet and 0-6 when Zengerle was held without a point.
However, the Badgers were 8-0 in games when the skaters each had two or more points.
None of those equations applied to this outcome, which was decided on grit and defense.
Facing the top man-advantage unit in the WCHA during the regular season, UW killed off all four Denver power plays, blocking 22 shots in the process.
The idea that the rarified air of the Rocky Mountains might wear the Badgers down was dismissed in the third period when they outshot Denver 15-5 and dictated the tempo throughout.
Little showed up for his first tour of the playoffs with a nifty haircut, one that included a tiny lightning bolt carved into the left side of his head.
“It works for him,” McCabe said with a laugh.
“I think it helped, definitely,” Little said.
The Badgers played quite poorly in their own end to begin the night — at least four turnovers, including three in the slot area — but survived the scoreless first period because Rumpel looked locked in.
His best save in the first came when a poor pass by Schultz led to a quick shot from the hashes by left winger Ty Loney that Rumpel gloved.
McCabe made the winning goal possible. He carried the puck up the left boards, danced around defenseman John Lee in the circle and delivered a centering pass that Little rerouted past goaltender Juho Olkinuora (29 saves).
“I passed it over and ended up on my stomach somehow,” McCabe said. “I look and see Sean Little’s stick’s in the net, so I figured that’s got to be a good sign.”
Closing out the Pioneers (21-12-4) will not be easy. Little said the Badgers have to channel what they did in the third period this night.
“Dominate down low,” he said. “If we can come out and play three strong periods (tonight) we should give ourselves a good chance to win.”