It was just two series ago when the Badger men’s hockey team faced off against the Minnesota State Mavericks. And frankly, it was a weekend to forget for UW.
Wisconsin escaped Mankato with just one point in the series after letting two third-period leads slip away.
The stakes are even higher this weekend, however, as the Badgers (17-15-4, 14-11-3 WCHA) host the Mavericks (15-15-6, 11-13-4 WCHA) in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. If Wisconsin loses the series, its season very well may be over.
“Now I guess it’s for real,” said senior forward Tom Gorowsky, who had two goals and two assists in UW’s last series with MNSU. “If we don’t win this weekend, there’s a pretty realistic chance our season’s over. … We’ve got to make sure we find a way to get two wins.”
The line of Gorowsky, Michael Davies and Derek Stepan played perhaps the best of any UW line against MNSU, as they combined for nine points between the two games. Still, the performance of the trio didn’t result in a win either night for the Badgers.
“I’m excited that we played well against them, but hopefully we’ll have a little bit better outcomes when we play them this time around,” Gorowsky said.
UW’s best chance of making the tournament this season will be to win the conference playoffs, which is quite the opposite of last year’s squad. Just a season ago, Wisconsin lost on the road to St. Cloud State in the first round of the WCHA playoffs but backed into the NCAA tournament despite a losing record.
Yet with all the work still to be done to get to that point, senior goaltender Shane Connelly feels this year’s Badger team is better than a year ago.
“I just think we’re more of a complete team,” Connelly said. “We’ve got more guys with more experience in this situation. I think we’re a much better team at this point. We’re more confident. We’ve been through a lot more than we went through last year.”
The best-of-three series begins Friday at the Kohl Center, providing a much different setting than the last time these two schools met. Minnesota State plays better in front of its own fans at the Alltel Center in Mankato — 8-6-2 at home — than it does on the road (7-8-4).
“They have an advantage at their place,” Connelly said. “They’ll be excited to come in and play in a big-time environment like this, but I think it helps us out playing them on our sheet.”
Minnesota State is playing well at the right time. The Mavericks haven’t lost in their past five games, earning three points against St. Cloud State last weekend after taking three from the Badgers the weekend before.
Part of their success stems from their aggressiveness, especially on the penalty kill. Minnesota State leads the nation with 11 short-handed goals on the season — including four by forward Zach Harrison.
It was that aggressiveness that also helped the Mavericks eliminate a pair of UW third-period leads, something the Badgers will take away from that series.
“When you get a lead, you just have to finish out, keep playing offense and not worry about getting scored against,” sophomore defenseman Cody Goloubef said.
As well as MNSU has played over the past few weeks, UW is entering the playoffs on somewhat of a high note as well. The Badgers are coming off a 4-1 victory over North Dakota to end the regular season. It was a game in which Wisconsin had another two-goal third period lead, but this time managed to hang on for the win.
“It shows us that we can do it against the best team in our league,” Goloubef said. “It’s a big confidence boost going into this weekend to know that once we get a lead, we can keep it. If we can do it against North Dakota, why can’t you do it against a team like [Minnesota State]?”
The matchup against Minnesota State will give Wisconsin a chance at redemption for what happened two weekends ago in Mankato. The Badgers failed to win two games they could have had, but can erase that memory with a pair of victories.
“We left a lot out there,” Connelly said. “Those were games that we needed up there and we didn’t get them; we got one point. … they didn’t see our very best. They saw us as pretty good, but now we get to play them at our home rink, make them uncomfortable, and we get a chance to take games back that we thought we should have had out there.”