MANKATO, Minn. — One team seems to be hitting its stride right at the cusp of the playoffs. The other team seems to be free falling.
Minnesota State defeated No. 2 Wisconsin to earn a second-consecutive WCHA sweep at home. The game was played in front of a season-high attendance of 5,007 fans, the sixth-largest crowd ever at the Midwest Wireless Civic Center.
The Mavericks got three-point efforts from sophomores Ryan Carter and Steve Wagner and freshman Jon Kalinski. Also, on Senior Night, the three seniors in the lineup-Jon Dubel, Jeff Marler, and Rob Rankin-accounted for three goals and one assist.
With MSU (16-16-4, 12-13-3 WCHA) matching a season-high four-game winning streak, the only thing that may slow the Mavericks down is being idle next weekend before heading to the road for the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
“Playing the way we are right now, I don’t want it,” MSU coach Troy Jutting said of next week’s time off. “But we can’t do anything about it. We’ll get ready. We’ll get ready and be ready to go.”
Wisconsin (21-9-3, 15-8-3 WCHA), meanwhile, may have a goalie controversy right before the end of the regular season. After allowing five goals on 17 shots, netminder Brian Elliott was pulled in favor of freshman Shane Connelly early in the second period. Connelly would fair no better, allowing an easy goal minutes after he was put in and one more before the end of the second.
“He too has to go back to square one, as our defenseman do and our forwards do,” Badger coach Mike Eaves said of Elliott.
The seven goals against were the highest all year for the defensive-minded Badgers, breaking the high of six they let in the night before.
In a reverse from Friday’s game, the Mavericks came out hard Saturday and carried most of the play in the first period.
Early on, Kalinski fired a shot from the slot that Elliott lost after a deflection. Carter found the puck as it slid towards the crease, and the sophomore backhanded it past Elliot 49 seconds into the game.
“Carter sort of won it back, and it came on my stick,” Kalinski said. “I shot it. It took a lucky bounce right on to Carter’s stick. We’ll take it.”
MSU built a 2-0 lead on the power play at 4:03. Rankin took the puck at center ice and carried it into the Badger zone. The forward skated through three Wisconsin defenders, going from left to right through the slot before firing the puck into the far side of the goal.
But it was the Badgers’ turn to rally from an early deficit, as Wisconsin tied the game before the end of the first period.
With Wisconsin on the man advantage, Jeff Likens fired a shot from the point. MSU goalie Dan Tormey made the save, but Ben Street kicked the rebound across the crease to Ross Carlson. The junior put a shot off the post and into the net for his second goal of the series.
A giveaway in the MSU zone with seconds left in the period led to the second Badger goal. Dubel gave the puck to UW’s Joe Pavelski. On a two-on-one rush, Pavelski fed Robbie Earl for a wide open net at 19:29.
But Wisconsin would get no closer. Just as the series did, the second period got away from Wisconsin.
Minnesota State retook the lead 1:24 into the second. Kalinski fired a laser over Elliott for his fourth career goal.
“I thought Jon Kalinski was unbelievable tonightHe’s going to be a very good player in this league,” Jutting said.
Only 2:23 later, Wagner fired a shot from the point that was deflected in by Chad Brownlee.
Then, 1:10 after Brownlee’s goal, seniors connected as Dubel made a great backhanded pass to Marler in the crease. Marler put the puck over Elliott’s extended pad, and the UW goalie was pulled at 4:57 of the period.
“Well I think what is happening is we’ve kind of got off course,” Eaves said. “We’re playing disconnected. We were a little disorientated. We lost our swagger. We lot some of our confidence.”
Rankin posted his second goal of the night right after an MSU power play expired. From the same part of the ice as his first goal, Rankin fired a shot that skipped off Connelly’s pad and over his shoulder at 8:20. The senior’s second goal gave the Mavericks a commanding 6-2 lead.
“Robbie’s been a very special player for us,” Jutting said. “We’ve put him in a lot of defensive roles, and he’s done a terrific job with that. I think (he’s) one of the best defensive players in this league. Obviously he’s starting to score for us as well, which has been a big help to us.”
Wisconsin scored a power-play goal at 10:54 of the second to make it a 6-3 score. Immediately after exiting the penalty box for a coincidental minor, Ryan MacMurchy fired a shot to beat Tormey.
But Kurtis Kisio restored the four-goal lead by crashing the net and putting in Kalinski’s rebound at 14:27 of the second.
Neither team tallied in the third, but Rankin came close to getting a hat trick in his last game in Mankato. In the last minutes of the game, Rankin’s shot in the crease was robbed by a Connelly kick save.
“That’s the story of my career right there,” Rankin said. “Get in the right place, get the right shot, just don’t finish. But you know what? I’m happy with two goals. And the win.”
After the teams exchanged handshakes at the end of the game, the entire Maverick squad took a victory lap around the arena to show appreciation to the fans.
“I was a little choked up there skating around,” Rankin said. “This is the most fun I’ve had here in the three years I’ve been here.”
Wisconsin will have next weekend’s regular-season finale at home against St. Cloud to get things straightened out before the playoffs. MSU will watch the standings to see which team will clinch fourth in the standings and host the Mavericks.
“I’m not the biggest fan of it, but we have no choice,” Rankin said. “That’s just the way the schedule is. We’ve got to make sure that we come out and we’re ready to go by playoff time.”