ST. PAUL, Minn. - Wisconsin left the WCHA with quite a souvenir.
Now the Badgers need four more wins to get a bigger prize that seemed so improbable last month.
Nic Kerdiles had a goal and an assist to help Wisconsin hang on to beat Colorado College 3-2 on Saturday night in the WCHA championship game, giving the Badgers the Broadmoor Trophy, their sixth consecutive victory and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
"We are where we are today because of those lessons that we learned," coach Mike Eaves said, referring to the 2-7-5 start his team endured.
Tyler Barnes scored with 17 seconds left in the first period to put fourth-seeded Wisconsin (22-12-7) on top, and the Badgers stayed ahead the entire evening to end the season for the Tigers (18-19-5). Both teams needed to win to move on because their records aren't strong enough for an at-large spot in the 16-team field.
Colorado College, the eighth seed in the playoffs, also was riding all the March momentum it could muster to try to reach the NCAA tournament. The Tigers, also in their last weekend as a member of the league, won four in a row to get to the title game. But they ran out of steam in their sixth game in nine days.
When Wisconsin and Minnesota join the Big Ten later this year, Colorado College goes to the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference with fellow WCHA foes Denver, St. Cloud State, North Dakota, Nebraska Omaha and Minnesota Duluth.
"This is such a big-time tournament. I'm glad we were a part of it and represented ourselves and our school well," Tigers coach Scott Owens said. "Nobody should be hanging their head."
Sean Little also had a goal for Wisconsin after having one waved off earlier in the game.
Charlie Taft scored for the second time in two games, and Rylan Schwartz had a goal and an assist for Colorado College, scoring with 28 seconds left in the second period to cut the lead to one. Joe Howe made 29 saves for the Tigers, who never let up but couldn't get enough clean looks at the net down the stretch against that smothering, lane-clogging defence the Badgers play. Wisconsin won the WCHA playoff title for the first time since 1998.
Now the Badgers will take an underdog mentality and plenty of confidence into the NCAA tournament. The bracket is revealed on Sunday night.
"When you start winning, it's contagious in the locker room and it's a lot of fun to be around each other and at the rink," said left wing Ryan Little.
Without Minnesota or North Dakota, there were plenty of empty seats around the arena despite an announced crowd of more than 18,000. But those who were there took in a memorable game, the last Final Five with the league's current makeup. The majority of fans of this 60-plus-year-old league were upset by the news of the breakup began by the creation of the Big Ten and exacerbated by the addition of the NCHC.
Some Badgers fans unfurled a large banner they pressed against the glass that read, "B1G mistake" referencing the Big Ten's abbreviation.
The WCHA announced before the game that the Final Five event will be held in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 2014 and 2016 and return to Xcel Energy Center in 2015 and 2017. The Big Ten tournament will be here in 2014 and 2016 and in Detroit in 2015 and 2017. The NCHC's post-season championship will be played in Minneapolis at Target Center.