By John Gilbert, for wcha.com
SAINT PAUL, MINN. --- Wisconsin goaltender Joel Rumpel's nickname is "Sunshine," which might imply that Tyler Barnes and Nic Kerdiles could be called the moon and the stars. Collectively, they sent the Badgers into NCAA tournament orbit with a 3-2 victory over Colorado College Saturday night that provided an out-of-this-world reward of the Broadmoor Trophy as well.
The two teams were not only playing for the final Red Baron WCHA Final Five championship, before 18,782 fans at Xcel Energy Center, but the loser would fall from the scope of the 16-team national tournament field of candidates. But after all that the Badgers have endured this season, all it took was some more of that patented execution, and another dose of what seems to be their private stock of karma.
Barnes scored the pivotal first goal of the game to stake the Badgers to a 1-0 lead in the closing seconds of the first period. Sean Little's tip made it 2-0 to open the second, and trying to come back against the stifling defensive style that coach Mike Eaves has convinced his player of using is a lot like running in quicksand.
Outshot 33-22, including 9-4 in the third period, Colorado College did battle back, behind the amazing dynamo named Rylan Schwartz, who set up Charlie Taft for a flashy goal to cut the margin to 2-1, and scored an impressive breakaway goal to end the second period and close the gap to a workable 3-2.
The third Badger goal gave Wisconsin a 3-1 edge when Kerdiles went to the right edge of the net and smacked in the rebound of a shot by goal-crashing John Ramage. That meant that despite the presence of the ever-dangerous Schwartz, the 3-2 lead was in good with Rumpel in goal.
"We were tired, our D-corps was tired," acknowledged CC coach Scott Owens. "And this game was a different style. Wisconsin is so dialed in to their defensive system, and they execute it so tightly, we were always a step behind. But I'm very, very proud of our guys. This was our eighth straight road game. But we had a strong will to keep it going. Rylan Schwartz was an absolute man out there, making big-time plays at big moments."
The way the Badgers are playing now makes the beginning of the season seem distant. During that dismal 1-7-2 start, junior Tyler Barnes couldn't seem to buy a goal, and freshman Nic Kerdiles was unable to play, ruled ineligible for allowing a pro agent to get too close to him during the NHL draft. As the season moved on, Kerdiles found a home on the Badgers first line, with Mark Zengerle centering him on the left and Barnes on the right. "Their chemistry has caught on," said Eaves.
That chemistry has been apparent through the playoffs. The Badgers swept Minnesota-Duluth 3-1 and 4-1, with Kerdiles and Zengerle scoring goals in the first game and Barnes getting one in the second. Then came the Final Five, and Barnes scored twice and Kerdiles once in the 7-2 shocker against Minnesota State-Mankato, and Kerdiles and Barnes each scoring a goal in the 4-1 semifinal victory over St. Cloud State. With each getting a goal in Saturday's final, it means Barnes and Kerdiles have combined for nine goals in five playoff games.
Kerdiles was voted most valuable player of the Final Five, and joined Barnes and CC star Schwartz as the all-tournament forwards. John Ramage of the Badgers and Peter Stoykewych of the Tigers were the defensemen, and Rumpel of the Badgers the goalie.
"Joel's nickname is Sunshine," said Eaves. "He's got the perfect goaltender attitude because he remains calm when people are flying all around him. He makes things look easier than they are because of his demeanor."
The Badgers are in the midst of a surge from a faltering 1-7-2 start to a 22-12-7 record, and a certain spot in the 16-team NCAA tournament field that will be announced Sunday. Colorado College, which showed such great tenacity in stringing together four consecutive upset victories, finishes 18-19-5, knowing that only a championship and its automatic berth could push the Tigers to the NCAA field.
The fresher Badgers gained a touigh 1-0 lead in the final minute of the first period, and made it 2-0 early in the second, staying ahead at 3-1. But Rylan Schwartz, CC's version of Superman to the Tigers offense, set up one goal and scored the other to close the gap by the end of the second period. His presence meant that CC was a threat to tie the game until the closing seconds.
The safest assumption was that the title match would be a goaltending duel between Rumpel and CC's Joe Howe. Rumpel had allowed three goals in his victories over MSU-Mankato and St. Cloud State, while making 68 saves, a save percentage of .957; Colorado College's Howe had allowed three goals in beating North Dakota in overtime and blanking Minnesota, and made 64 saves, a percentage of .955.
The first period was just such a duel, as both goalies were solid. The Badgers outshot CC 13-9, and it was the 13th shot that gave the Badgers a 1-0 lead. Frankie Simonelli shot from the left point, and Kerdiles deflected it on net. Howe blocked it, but the rebound landed in the left side of the crease, and Tyler Barnes smacked it in, with 17 seconds remaining in the first period.
"It could have been a different game if we didn't score first," said Eaves. "Congratulations to CC. They had a lot of heart and soul, and they put all of it out there."
Both teams had plenty of reason to plead exhaustion, with the title game being their third in three days. For Colorado College it was worse, because they had to go all three games to upset Denver the previous weekend, which meant Saturday's final was the Tigers sixth game in nine days. And the Tigers did seem to sputter a bit in the second period.
The Badgers had something to do with that, of course, deflating the CC hopes when Jake McCabe's point shot was deflected by Sean Little past Howe for a 2-0 lead at 3:28.
Colorado College gained a little spark at 7:19, when Schwartz rushed up the left side to create a 2-on-1, and sent a perfect goal-mouth pass to Charlie Taft, who banked it in at the right edge to cut the Wisconsin lead to 2-1.
The Tigers dodged a bullet when a Wisconsin power-play goal was disallowed midway through the period, because the rebound of Ryan Little's wide-angle shotpopped up off the goalie's mask and, video reviews proved, brother Sean Little batted it in with his gloved left hand at about waist height.
But at 16:15, Wisconsin scored a legitimate third goal. John Ramage rushed up the right boards from the point, curled deep and veered out in front. Howe blocked his backhander, but Nic Kerdiles rapped in the rebound at the right post for a 3-1 lead.
That appeared to settle Colorado College's hopes of going all the way to the Final Five title -- the Tigers only hope of reaching the NCAA tournament's 16 selections. The Tigers passes lacked crispness, and accuracy, and the second period was wearing down into its final minute.
But then, Schwartz to the rescue again. Alexander Krushelnyski picked the puck off the left boards in his own end and spotted Schwartz trying to break past defenseman McCabe. Krushelnyski quickly zipped a pass up the middle, and Schwartz broke in, fighting off repeated hooking attempts by McCabe, then making a great deke before firing a shot past Rumpel with 27 seconds left in the middle period.
Exhaustion seemed to be a secondary foe for the Tigers in the third period, but as the final period wore on, exhaustion seemed to be getting the upper hand.
Owens pulled Howe for an extra attacker with 1:10 remaining, and as the Tigers rallied furiously, CC's William Rapuzzi was called for tripping with 9.4 seconds remaining, and the last gasp was extinguished.
WCHA Final Five All-Tournament Team
F - Nic Kerdiles, UW
F - Tyler Barnes, UW
F - Rylan Schwartz, CC
D - Peter Stoykewych, CC
D - John Ramage, UW
G - Joel Rumpel, UW
MVP - Nic Kerdiles, F, UW