MADISON — With a minute to play in overtime, Wisconsin’s Luke Kunin barreled down the ice towards senior Michigan netminder Steve Racine. Racine played the breakaway calmly, slamming his pads shut and scrambling to cover the loose rebound.
It was the save of the game in a dramatic 5-4 shootout win for the sixth-ranked Wolverines (9-2-3-2 Big Ten, 18-4-5 overall).
JT Compher embodied Michigan’s frustration at the inability to put the game away in regulation when he slammed his stick against the endboards after the horn marked the end of the third period. But in a weekend full of momentum shifts, odd bounces and wacky calls, the Wolverines took the result and ran for the team buses.
“We were lucky to come out of here with two points,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “If it weren’t for our goalie, we wouldn’t have gotten anything.”
Added Racine: “Luckily we got the extra point, but it still kind of felt like a loss.”
The storyline of the first period was special teams. After taking just two penalties in Friday’s contest, a Michigan player headed to the box twice in the first 20 minutes. Wisconsin came out flying in its first power play opportunity, moving the puck across the offensive zone with ease and flustering the Wolverines’ penalty killers.
But on the second power play, everything fell apart for the Badgers. Michigan junior forward JT Compher broke up a Wisconsin pass in the defensive zone and streaked up the ice with fellow junior forward Tyler Motte in tow. Compher then floated a pass to the NCAA’s leading goal scorer, and Motte roofed a backhand into the upper netting.
The goal was Motte’s 27th of the year, his 11th straight contest with a goal and his second game-opening tally of the weekend. All series against the Badgers, he made the extraordinary look routine.
But Wisconsin wasn’t out of fight yet. The Badgers tied the game at one apiece for the second night in a row on a well-placed pass from the point. Freshman forward Luke Kunin carved out space for himself in the slot and redirected the puck just past Wolverines’ senior goaltender Steve Racine.
Freshman forward Kyle Connor answered with another Michigan goal halfway through the period. The breakout star (Connor leads the NCAA in points per game with 1.77) fielded a perfect pass from junior defenseman Nolan De Jong and walked into the offensive zone with just the goalie to beat. A Wisconsin defender drew a penalty with a desperate slash, but Connor fought off the contact, besting the Badger’s netminder with an emphatic one-two move.
It appeared that Michigan might fend off Wisconsin in a similar fashion to the previous night, but Grant Besse changed the course of the game. With under 13 seconds to play in the second, the Badgers forward cut down the right side of the ice and blasted a wrist shot past Racine’s glove.
It was a disheartening goal for the Wolverines, and a tally that breathed life into Wisconsin.
A wild third period capped off the entertaining contest.
Compher wasted no time in taking the lead back for Michigan, jumping into the offensive zone and blasting a wrist shot off the cross bar just 15 seconds into the period.
Just 30 seconds later, the Badgers’ Ryan Wagner tied it again with his second goal of the series. The sophomore forward caught Michigan sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski out of position at the blue line, and capitalized on a breakaway opportunity. Werenski hooked Wagner in an attempt to stop a goal, but the shot beat Racine between the pads.
Fittingly in a game full of penalties, it was special teams that gave the Wolverines the lead late into the period. Racine headed to the bench for the extra attacker, and Michigan kept possession, looking for an opportunity to strike. Sophomore forward Dexter Dancs found that chance, creating traffic in front and lifting a short rebound into the upper left corner.
The goal gave Michigan a 4-3 lead for which Wisconsin appeared to have no answer. The final 10 minutes were tense, and chances abounded on both ends of the ice.
And then, with 26.1 seconds to play, a Wisconsin forward slipped backdoor and buried the one-time attempt. The game headed to overtime.
“It was just kind of a D-zone breakdown,” Motte said. “We basically had two guys covering three, which makes it tough, especially late in the game. They found a way to squeeze one by. That’s the second time it’s happened this year, which makes it hurt a little bit more. Five (points) of six on the road isn’t too bad, but you always want to get six.”
The extra period was wide open, with each team taking chances in an attempt to end the game before a shootout. JT Compher sealed the victory with his shootout goal, but it didn’t erase the sting of how close those three points were for Michigan.