Playing for points, conference position and home-ice in the WCHA playoffs, the Badgers played arguably their worst game of the season against a Minnesota State team near the bottom of the league.
The end result was just another ugly chapter in the defending champion's post-title let down.
"There are reasons, no excuses, for the outcome tonight," Captain Andrew Joudrey said.
Despite being in ninth place in conference, Minnesota State (9-14-4, 6-10-3 WCHA) out- worked, out-hustled and dictated the entire game against the Badgers, scoring early goals in the second and third period on their way to a dominating 3-1 victory. Minnesota State has now unbeaten in their last four games and have won three straight over Wisconsin.
One of the things the Badgers (10-13-2, 7-9-1 WCHA) had talked about coming into this series was how hard the Mavericks worked, which was evident by Minnesota State taking three of four points against then-No.4 St. Cloud State. Even with the early warning signs, the Badgers failed to match the Mavericks intensity and, more surprisingly, find a niche offensively.
"We're playing when we have to, not when we should," sophomore Jack Skille said. "We only play hard when we are down a couple goals or when we feel like it."
Wisconsin first shot on goal didn't come until 13:40 into the first period and could have been a candidate for the best scoring chance of the evening. The Badgers managed only 12 shots at goal on State goalie Mike Zacharias (23 saves) threw the first two periods and most of the Badgers' shot were taken around the blue line.
After neither team posed a real scoring threat in the first period, Minnesota State was the first to light the lamp. Skating towards center ice, freshman Geoff Irwin lifted a backhand shot over Elliott's right shoulder that found its way into the net. The goal was Irwin's second of the season and gave the Mavericks the early advantage.
Wisconsin ended the period with only four shots on goal, their lowest first period total since October 21.
"I was pretty bored out there in the first period," Zacharias joked.
Even when the Badgers were doing things right, State found a way to put points on the board. Off a perfectly executed block by Andrew Joudrey, the puck caromed right back to the shooter, assistant captain Steve Wagner. Wagner wasn't about to let his misfortunes get the better of him, firing the rebound past Elliott for the Mavericks' second goal.
One of Wisconsin's trademarks is their ability to get into the passing lanes and block opponent's shots. In their last conference series against No.1 Minnesota, the Badgers blocked over 35 shots against the powerful Gopher offense. With the Mavericks being well aware of the Badgers' strengths, Minnesota State made the extra effort in practice this week to wait for the open lane and it paid off.
"We just needed to learn to be more patient and find holes to get the pucks through," Zacharias said. "We knew they blocked a lot of shots. We found some holes and luckily, they went in."
"[Minnesota State] really collapse to the net when the puck came out," head coach Mike Eaves added. "They were getting in the shooting lanes with the puck and we weren't able to get them in."
Although they doubled their shot total in the second period, the Badgers found no rhythm offensively. Whether is was contributed to having the previous week off or not, Wisconsin left the ice down 2-0 and received a chorus of boos coming from the stands as they entered the locker room.
"I should have booed too after the way we had played in the second period," Eaves said. "We were a step behind and we weren't at game pace. That's what happens when you're off a week. We played disconnected, with other people trying to do other people's jobs. The game slipped away from us in the second period."
State's third goal proved to be the finishing blow to the Badgers early in the third. With the Mavericks looking for a line change, Kael Mouillierat reared back and blasted one towards the net. The end result summed up the Wisconsin evening, as the puck grazed over Elliott's right shoulder and into the net, increasing the Minnesota State lead to 3-0.
Wisconsin sophomore Ben Street removed some of the embarrassment from the Badgers' night when he scored his sixth goal of the season off a rebound in front of the net, but it proved to be too little too late for the Badgers.
In a series where Minnesota State desperately needed some stout play to get back into the WCHA race, the Mavericks got two of their three goals from their freshmen wings. With leading scorer Travis Morin having a quiet night scoring, both Irwin and Mouillierat scored big goals in a hostile environment to put State in a four-way tie for sixth in conference.
"They had the jump and mentality they were strong and scored two huge goals for us," Minnesota State head coach Troy Jutting said. "When you get two freshmen to score goals on the road in a big game, they are big goals."