OMAHA, Neb. — Brendan Woods was chatting up a couple reporters outside the visitor’s dressing room at the CenturyLink Center Friday night when the sophomore center for the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team got zinged.
Woods was one of the saviors for UW, scoring the decisive goal with 1 minute, 42 seconds remaining to provide a 4-3 Western Collegiate Hockey Association win over Nebraska-Omaha before an announced crowd of 10,543.
He also jumped up on a line between sophomore left winger Joseph LaBate and junior right winger Michael Mersch that produced three go-ahead goals, generated nine shots and was a combined plus-5.
When junior center Keegan Meuer walked by the mini-throng that was quizzing Woods, he stopped in the hallway and smirked.
“I’ll send your limo by,” Meuer said.
Woods smiled, but it wasn’t in response to the dig as much as it was him reveling in a performance that was a pretty good definition of clutch.
The 16th-ranked Badgers (15-11-7 overall, 11-7-7 with 29 points) gave away two leads in the third period, but found a way to maintain a share of sixth place heading into the series finale tonight.
With three regular-season games remaining, three points separate second place from seventh. The top six finishers get home ice for the opening round of the WCHA playoffs.
“We’re so close,” Woods said of the six teams jockeying for position behind first-place St. Cloud State. “We know home ice is big and that’s in the back of our minds. That’s what we came here to do, to hopefully get four points and go home in a good spot.”
Woods, LaBate and Mersch each accounted for a goal, while junior center Mark Zengerle provided the other. Sophomore goaltender Joel Rumpel wasn’t as sharp as he has been on the road this season — he was 3-1-2 with a 1.04 goals-against average and .956 save ratio coming into series — but he was good when he had to be on the way to 24 saves.
UW improved to 7-2-4 on the road — 18 points away from home are the most in the WCHA — even though its special teams faltered. It allowed the 13th-rated Mavericks (18-13-2, 14-9-2, 30 points) to convert twice on the power play in the third and was 0-for-2 with the man-advantage to push its streak of futility on the road to 0-for-39 dating back to Oct. 27.
The Badgers never trailed and responded decisively to punches thrown by Omaha. For example, the third-period goal by LaBate came 22 seconds after the Mavericks pulled even at 2-all.
“We talk about push-backs,” UW coach Mike Eaves said. “There’s going to be swings of momentum and that was the talk before the game and was the talk on the bench during the game.”
Eaves made a key decision late in the first period to change lines, exchanging Woods for junior Jefferson Dahl, who resumed his customary place between the Littles, senior left winger Ryan and junior right winger Sean.
“I didn’t like what I was seeing,” Eaves explained.
Woods said he knew he had to step up to fill the void left by senior center Derek Lee, the No. 2 scorer who didn’t make the trip with a knee injury suffered Monday against Penn State.
“I was glad I was able to contribute,” Woods said.
“There’s different chemistry with different guys,” Mersch said after scoring his team-best 18th goal. “I think me and Brendan work well in the corners. We’re pretty strong and play similar games.”
Both teams were coming off weird, confusing losses. UW spit out a two-goal lead in the third and fell to NCAA Division I newbie Penn State 3-2 in overtime on Monday. Two nights earlier, Omaha dropped a 3-2 decision to the U.S. under-18 team in an exhibition game.
UW did a better job of responding because it made plays went it had to. The biggest came when Woods tracked down a rebound in the slot, spun and whistled a wrist shot past goaltender Ryan Massa (24 saves).
Woods said he had no clue why the Badgers continue to play so well on the road. Zengerle gave it a shot.
“I think that we just kind of get up for the challenge,” he said.