ST. PAUL, Minn. - On a team littered with productive seniors, John Mitchell had been the forgotten one.
Once thought to be a potential early defector to the NHL after a junior season where he shared the team lead with 15 goals, the soft-spoken Mitchell has fluctuated in and out of the lineup early in the year, been held scoreless in 26 games and had only one multi-goal game entering the weekend.
The monkey on his back was big, but Mitchell was still bringing contributions to the third line in the eyes of his teammates.
"He's done a lot of other good things for us all year long," senior tri-captain Blake Geoffrion said. "Just because he hasn't scored doesn't mean he wasn't doing something for us."
Mitchell brought his usual repertoire – big hits and drawing big penalties – but he added his first scoring punch since January 29, just to keep top-seed Wisconsin on the right course toward Detroit.
Mitchell got Wisconsin on the board first and delivered the game-winning tally in the third, as his two tallies were enough to send the Badgers to their 11th Frozen Four and first in four years, defeating second-seed St. Cloud State, 5-2, in front of 7,182 fans at the Xcel Energy Center.
The Frozen Four has been held in Detroit five times, twice the Badgers have advanced their and twice Wisconsin has walked away with the championship (1997, 2000), a chance they will get again with Mitchell's first career multi-goal game against a ranked opponent.
"It wasn't too big," Mitchell said about the monkey on his back. "Right now, it's about team and getting here to the regional and then to the Frozen Four. I've just been trying to do my part, pick up my place when other guys aren't scoring and back those players up."
Mitchell wasn't alone in his contributions. Geoffrion further enhanced his candidacy for the Hobey Baker Award, scoring his 27th goal in the first and assisting on two others, giving him two goals and three assists on a weekend where he was named the West Regional Tournament Most Valuable Player.
"Feels incredible," said a beaming Geoffrion. "I know us seniors have worked hard since coming in after a championship team, seeing how hard those guys worked. For us to get the opportunity to possibly go to a national championship game, it's an incredible feeling right now."
Wisconsin (27-10-4) – who will play upset-minded RIT on Thursday, April 8 at Ford Field – also 26 saves from junior Scott Gudmandson, doing just enough to keep the Huskies (24-14-5) without ever finding a flow.
"We made it interesting in a few moments," St. Cloud State Coach Bob Motzko said. "We were flat. The first period was just a struggle for us."
The struggles started right from the opening faceoff with a goalie that had embarrassed the Badgers on the same ice sheet eight days ago. After shutting out the Badgers in the WCHA Final Five semifinals, freshman Mike Lee's aura wore off, starting when Mitchell redirected an Andy Bohmbach shot at 2:31 into the first.
Once the floodgates opened, the Badgers didn't quit. Geoffrion – who also win 22 of 34 faceoffs - scored at 13:18 off a long rebound by Ryan McDonagh to double the lead and Jake Gardiner answered State's first goal 33 second later by scoring his eighth of the season off a soft rebound, returning the lead to two.
The bad rebound equaled the end of the night for Lee, who was pulled after 11 shots in favor of junior Dan Dunn (31 saves), and gave the Badgers a distinct edge in the sixth meeting between the two teams.
"(Wisconsin) played one resilient, tough hockey game tonight," Motzko said. "Giving up three in the first period was just too difficult to crawl back from."
It was basically shutdown mode from there for Wisconsin, limiting the Huskies to only 19 shots over the final 40 minutes and 0-of-7 on the power play, as St. Cloud's double-overtime thriller over Northern Michigan the night before started to wear on its legs.
"Our tanks weren't full tonight," Motzko added, "and theirs were."
The limited energy made every Wisconsin response all that much harder to stomach. After Festler scored his second of the game on a short-handed tally at 4:16, Mitchell responded with the dagger.
The Huskies had just killed off one of six UW power plays when Mitchell flipped a loose puck over Dunn's shoulder at the right post, helping the Badgers regain their two goal lead.
"The great start was pivotal," Wisconsin Coach Mike Eaves said, "and the way we responded was pivotal. (We) snuffed out any momentum they made have gotten going."
St. Cloud State gave itself a glimmer of chance when junior left winger Tony Mosey scored on an extra-attacker goal at 17:10 but just like its other two goals, UW had a quick answer, this time in the form of senior Aaron Bendickson.
Although narrowly missing a shot from the blue line seconds earlier, Bendickson notched an empty netter with 18:52 remaining, clinching Wisconsin's plane ticket to Detroit.
Three St. Cloud State goals, three responses by Wisconsin in no more than 2:38.
"They did a nice job of answering everything we had," State senior captain Garrett Raboin said. "It seemed like once we got our head up out of the hole, they would knock us back down. We didn't run with the momentum very much at all."
What made it even better for the Badgers is that the majority of pain they inflected was done by its 11th- and 15th-highest scorer, making the Badgers all that more excited to keep the momentum moving.
"We've talked about our strength all year long being our depth," said Geoffrion. "Mitchell stepped up in a huge game. I am proud of him."
"The job is not done yet though. We still have two games to win to finish this off."