MADISON, Wis. — With two of the hottest teams in the country meeting in a vital two-game series with huge PairWise implications, something had to give.
While visiting Minnesota State had won six consecutive games and were 12-4-3 in their 19 games, No. 10 Wisconsin were no slouches either, going 5-1-3 in their last nine games, including a three-point weekend during Michigan Tech’s Winter Carnival. Throw in the fact that the Badgers were 10-3-1 at home lifetime against the Mavericks and critics were quick to pencil in a successful Wisconsin weekend.
Hearing those comments, No. 13 Minnesota State showed the hockey world why pencils come with erasers.
For two teams so evenly matched in offense, defense and personal on ice, the visitors came out clicking on all cylinders and overwhelmed the host Badgers, blasting 17 of their 28 shots on goal in the opening period and were in control from beginning to end, shutting out Wisconsin 3-0.
The victory was of historical significance to Minnesota State (16-10-4, 10-9-4 WCHA), as it marks the schools first seven-game win streak since they became a Division I program in 1996.
“It’s a one-game winning streak as far as I am concerned,” said Mavericks’ coach Troy Jutting, who earned his third win in 13 tries in Madison. “This is one of our better efforts here.”
Comparing the two programs would seem challenging, especially since the Badgers have been known as a stout defensive team under Mike Eaves and the Mavericks for bringing consistent intensity and energy on both ends of the ice.
However, in the WCHA ranks, the two teams find themselves having nearly identical numbers in various categories, which is why a 3-0 shutout was the furthest thing from Jutting’s mind.
“We’re a real similar team to Wisconsin,” Jutting admitted. “We’re both really young hockey teams and the numbers, goals, goals against, record, are nearly identical and the way play too is similar. A couple of bounces was the difference tonight.”
To be honest, it was more than a couple of bounces that propelled Minnesota State to sole possession of fourth place in the conference and to eighth in the PairWise rankings.
Using host Wisconsin (13-12-6, 9-10-4 WCHA) as somewhat of a role model in terms of team defense, Minnesota State brought the usual intensity, but coupled it with Badger-esk defense.
The Mavericks out blocked Wisconsin, a trademark of UW, 9-2 in the first period and 14-13 for the game, limited UW to minimal grade-A scoring chances, and used goalie Mike Zacharias to pick up any leftover pieces, as the junior stopped all 32 shots he faced.
“We go out there and do what we are expected to do from us,” Zacharias said. “We’ve played really good hockey down the stretch. Wisconsin has always been a defensive team and we have really concentrated on that this year.”
Beginning the game with a cleanly-skated first nine minutes, the penalties starting pouring in on the home team.
In a 53-second span, head referee Derek Shepherd whistled captain Davis Drewiske for a two-minute tripping minor, a 10-minute unsportsmanlike conduct major on Podge Turnbull and a two-minute cross checking violation on assistant captain Kyle Klubertanz.
Suddenly, the third-worst penalty killing team in the conference was forced to kill off a five-on-three.
Just 11 seconds into the two-man advantage, the Mavericks made the Badgers pay when forward Mick Berge fired a shot from the right face-off circle. UW goalie Shane Connelly stopped the initial shot, but the rebound squirted away. Falling down to get the rebound, the puck was left uncontested for MSU’s Kael Mouilloerat, who buried it into the net to give MSU a 1-0 lead.
“We just wanted it more tonight and the shots on goal showed it,” Zacharias said. “We came out with more fire and it continued to carry over.”
Life didn’t fare any better for the Badgers in the second stanza either, especially for Connelly, as the junior goalie saw two of State’s six second-period shots find the back of the net.
The first second-period goal came off a shot from between the circles. Connelly made the initial stop, but could not corral the puck, juggling it between his chest and his glove. Center Zach Harrison took advantage of the opportunity, throwing his stick at Connelly and the bobbling puck, catching a piece to knock it free from Connelly and into the back of the net to double the lead.
Three minutes later, forward Geoff Irwin intercepted a pass that hopped over UW defenseman Kyle Klubertanz’s stick at the blue line, allowing Irwin go the distance, beating Connelly for goal number three.
In retrospect, it was Connelly’s own defenseman, Cody Goloubef, that admitted that it was his stick that deflected the second goal in, summing up the night for the Badgers.
“It was kind of the way the bounces were going for us tonight,” Connelly said. “That goal was a killer and it was a fluke goal.”
Whether it has been a Friday night funk in which the Badgers have played subpar the last four series openers, or being forced to spend two extra days grounded in Houghton, Mich., because of blizzard conditions, Wisconsin failed to bring the fire that had earned them points in eight of the last nine games.
“I look at my guys and I can’t for the life of me figure out where they went,” UW head coach Mike Eaves said. “Our young people did not prepare themselves to go out for battle.”
With Minnesota State playing its best hockey in 12 years, powered by a new-look defense, any team that isn’t prepared is going to end up like the Badgers did on Friday night.
“We are much more committed to a team defense,” Jutting said. “We’re a better defensive hockey team than maybe we’ve probably ever been and it showed for us (tonight).”