While last season's 3-2 overtime loss in the NCAA Midwest Regional ended the Badgers' season, this one just killed all the momentum UW built over the previous eight weeks and finished off UW's non-conference slate at 3-4-1, a number that certainly won't help the Badgers come NCAA selection time.
Confidence takes a long to build but can shatter in an instance – a harsh lesson UW learned against one of the worst offensive teams in the country.
Despite Wisconsin's power play scoring its first three opportunities and the Badgers building a 5-2 lead midway through the third period, four-win Northern Michigan stormed back to score four unanswered goals, including the game winner in overtime, to sweep the host Badgers with a 6-5 overtime victory.
"We have a lot of solid strong effort this year that hasn't been rewarded and there wasn't one lick of quit in these guys," said NMU coach Walt Kyle, as his team registered its first series sweep since February 22-23, 2008. "I feel happy for these guys that they finally got rewarded for it."
Wisconsin (10-9-3) looked in firm control when Derek Stepan scored two minutes, 38 seconds into the third period to give the Badgers their three-goal cushion. It was at that point that the Wildcats (5-12-3) starting chipping away.
It started innocently enough when freshman Justin Florek knocked in a rebound at 10:18 to cut the lead to 5-3. The air inside UW's Kohl Center got a little thicker when Florek got his second goal on a bounce off Connelly's pad less than five minutes later to cut the lead in half at 15:17.
The turning point, however, was a Wisconsin holding penalty on defenseman Craig Johnson at 17:12. With the Badgers already missing defenseman Cody Goloubef to Team Canada at the World Juniors and sophomore Brendan Smith due to an injury sustained at the end of the first period, the defense core was stripped down to only four bodies for a two-minute penalty kill.
It was an iffy penalty, one head coach Mike Eaves refused to comment on after the game.
With tired bodies out on the ice, sophomore Jared Brown, who hadn't scored a goal since October 10 or a point since October 18, was at the right place at the right time to knock in a rebound given up by Connelly with 49.6 seconds left on the clock, tying the score at five.
With the shock still on Wisconsin's faces midway through overtime, Brown, who Kyle sat during the third period to try and light a fire under him and his linemates, won the face-off and started to celebrate as forward Phil Fox's wrister found the back of the net off captain's Blake Geoffrion's shin pad, creating the melee in the Wisconsin zone.
"He got two points on the last two goals and shoved it right at me and not in a negative way," Kyle said. "I think that's outstanding."
The third-period collapse was a stark reminder of earlier times for the Badgers. Starting the season a program-worst 0-6-1 and having trouble doing the little things right, the Badgers saw a three-goal second period lead evaporate against No.4 Denver in October.
This UW squad was fresh off a 5-0-1 unbeaten streak and playing a team that hadn't scored six goals in their last six games combined, but made the plays against a UW team that couldn't stop the bleeding.
"They created a wave of momentum and we couldn't stop it," Eaves said.
Although the tidal wave consumed UW's forwards and defensemen, it crashed down on Connelly. Coming into the weekend 8-1-2 with a 1.61 goals against average and 92.9 save ratio in his previous 11 starts, Connelly hadn't allowed a team to score three goals or more in the last seven games, let alone three in one period.
Of the 10 shots he faced in the third period, three found the back of the net Saturday night.
"Our goaltending struggled tonight (and) I am sure he would like to have some of those back," Eaves said blatantly. "That was the difference. We have got to go back, look at the things that happened and what could have each position done better and we'll be honest with our self. The tape doesn't lie."
Before getting injured, Smith scored his sixth and seventh goals of the season in the game's first seven minutes, both of which came on the power play.
But it was a Northern Michigan first goal that hurt the Badgers twofold. As forward Nick Sirota skated across Connelly's face and knocked in a backhand for a power play goal, Smith was hit between the face off circles and injured his right wrist, a move that would cost Wisconsin later.
"They were learning under the gun playing with a lot of responsibility on their shoulders," said Eaves, referring to his three freshmen, one sophomore and one junior defenseman. "They'll be better because of that but it's tough to swallow right now. That's for sure."
With Smith done for the rest of the game, Wisconsin found production from forward John Mitchell, who made goal scoring look far from glamorous.
On a McBain shot from the blue line, Mitchell, creating traffic in front of the net, got his stick on the puck to deflect in into the corner of the net to increase UW's lead to 3-1.
Five minutes later, Mitchell, once again causing traffic in front of the net, deflected a shot from forward Jake Gardiner into the back of the net for Mitchell's first multi-goal game of his career.
Momentum wise, it was a huge turn of events, as the Wildcats had cut the lead to one just 72 seconds earlier. Although Mitchell's goal pushed the lead back to two, UW would not be able to survive an NMU avalanche the last 12 minutes of regulation and overtime.
"It's hard," Mitchell said. "A tough loss, but we can learn from it. They played hard to the end and as a young team, that's something we can learn from."