In what might be a case of déjà vu for Mike Eaves' crew this weekend, the Badgers-Mavericks series will once-again symbolize a defining moment in the Badgers' season.
Late last February, the Badgers were in disarray after Brian Elliott suffered a leg injury that sidelined him for four weeks. Wisconsin, visibly shaken after losing the backbone of their team, went 2-5 without Elliott in net. When he returned, the Hobey Baker finalist wasn't himself, giving up 11 goals in a weekend sweep in Mankato.
The series proved to be a wake-up call for Wisconsin, as the Badgers huddled together and were nearly unstoppable the rest of the season, posting a 9-1 record on their way to their sixth national championship.
Fast forward to the present, as the Badgers (10-12-2, 7-8-1 WCHA) have begun to make their post-season run. Wisconsin has won four of its last six conference games on the heels of strong defensive and solid goaltending. With a profitable weekend against Minnesota State, the Badgers would put themselves in position for another post-season surge.
"Losing those two games was one of the pivotal points of last season," head coach Mike Eaves said. "The things that happened after that game were very important for us in terms of coming to grips with what we needed to do. We're in the same position this year. We took a realistic look at what we needed to do to get where we want to be. We go on a day-to-day basis in determining what we need to do to mature in order to get to that big picture."
Although second to last in the WCHA, Minnesota State always seems to pose a problem for the Badgers. The Mavericks are 3-4-1 in their last eight games with Wisconsin and took three of four points against St. Cloud State, ending the Huskies' 12-game win streak.
As tough as the Mavericks have played against the Badgers in their recent history, Minnesota State has had little success in Madison, going 2-9-1 all time in the Kohl Center. For Eaves and his team, State possesses some tough match up problems that directly relates to their aggressive style of play.
"Their best weapon is how hard they play," Eaves said as MSU only has one 20-plus point scorer this season. "They try to make things uncomfortable because they take time, space and play extremely hard. [Head coach] Troy [Jutting] recruits players that play that way. It's going to be a great weekend for hockey."
At this point in the season, the Badgers can ill-afford to take any opponent lightly. The Badgers currently reside outside the top half of the WCHA and outside the five hosting positions for the playoffs. Currently tied with Alaska-Anchorage for sixth, Wisconsin also sits at 17th in the pairwise rankings, which has an impact on the NCAA tournament. Currently, the Badgers rank three spots away from figuratively making the tournament, as the pairwise mimics the selection process.
Not all hope is lost for the Badgers. Wisconsin has played the fewest number of league games (16) in the WCHA and are in prime position to make a run at a high finish in the conference. Eight of the Badgers' 12 remaining league games are against teams at or below Wisconsin in the standings. The Badgers also host second-place St. Cloud State in the home regular season finale in February. In their last eight meetings, the Badgers are 6-0-2 against the Huskies.
"We know what is at stake," Eaves said. "Friday's game is the most important game of the year. Saturday's game is the most important game of the year. That will be the trumpet sound all the way to the end. All these games mean something very valuable for us."
In just his second year in the NHL, Mike Eaves' son has received a tremendous honor on Sunday. Picked 29th in the 2003 draft by the Ottawa Senators, Patrick Eaves has scored nine goals and 13 assists in 46 games this season. Combined with his 20 goals for the Senators last season, Eaves was selected to represent the East squad in the NHL YoungStars Game as a part of all-star weekend.
"[Patrick] was all gung-ho about getting a couple days rest until he got that nice phone call," the elder Eaves said. "Mrs. Eaves is going to get down and see him play. Sometimes, I wish I had my wife's life because she gets to go see her kids play. Heck, you get to go down and hang around all the big guys of the game. It's definitely an honor for him."