Wisconsin’s transformation from bad to good on the ice was about as shocking as Harvey Dent’s about-face from virtuous to evil in “The Dark Knight.”
The Badgers (12-20-0, 5-17-0 Big Ten) followed up one of their worst performances of the season with one of their strongest this weekend, splitting a series at home with the No. 17 Michigan State Spartans (16-16-2, 10-12-2).
The Badgers dug themselves into an early hole that only grew as Friday’s game progressed, ultimately falling to the Spartans, 6-2.
Just several days earlier, a gunman took the lives of three innocent students in an on-campus shooting at MSU.
Following multiple discussions with players and mental health professionals, the university determined a return to sports would be best for their student athlete’s recovery. A moment of silence was held before Friday’s game, and players donned “Spartan Strong” stickers on the back of their helmets.
“Athletics can be a rallying point for a community in need of healing, a fact many of our student-athletes have mentioned to me,” Michigan State athletic director Alan Haller said in a statement. “The opportunity to represent our entire community has never felt greater.”
Michigan State never seemed to let go of the contest’s momentum, keeping Wisconsin at bay for much of the night and swiftly squandering any hopes of a miraculous comeback. In both instances following the Badgers’ two goals, the Spartans countered less than two minutes later with scores on their very next shot.
“They played like they wanted to get home ice advantage in the playoffs,” Badgers coach Tony Granato said of Michigan State. “They earned it tonight.”
Wisconsin’s early struggles stemmed directly from their ineptitude on the power play. The Spartans were assessed three penalties — one being a major — in the first period alone, yet finished the opening frame with a comfortable 3-0 lead.
“Close to nine minutes of power play in the first period, we had an opportunity to take the game over by being sharp in that area and we weren’t,” Granato said. “We gave them a lot of momentum coming out of those [penalty] kills.”
The Badgers achieved power-play success on their fourth go-around at 6:02 in the second period. Tyson Jugnauth’s wrister from the far-side faceoff circle tipped off teammate Jack Gorniak and into the back of the net, pulling Wisconsin within two, 3-1. As the Kohl Center student section chanted “One! We want more!” MSU's Viktor Hurtig granted their wish with a goal at 7:48.
Zach Urdahl capitalized on a rare mistake by the Spartans several minutes later. MSU goaltender Dylan St. Cyr played the puck behind the net and was forced to rush a pass by Dominick Mersch. The errant feed was intercepted by Urdahl and fired past a fully outstretched St. Cyr to reestablish a two-goal margin, 4-2.
Erik Middendorf continued to serve as the Badgers’ kryptonite, recording assists on three of the Spartans’ six scores and burying a goal of his own that was called back. The junior forward netted four goals in the teams’ first bout on Nov. 4.
Nicolas Muller, Zach Dubinsky and David Gucciardi provided Michigan State with a three-goal cushion to begin the game.
Wisconsin goaltender Kyle McClellan was pulled in favor of senior Jared Moe after surrendering his fifth goal of the night at 10:15 in the second period. Moe stood tall in his relief, making 11 saves and allowing one PPG in the closing frame — the final score in the contest.
The Badgers completely flipped the script in their final regular-season game on home-ice, defeating the Spartans by the prior night’s final score, 6-2.
Mathieu De St. Phalle led the charge with two goals and an assist, though it was the Badger seniors that shined the most on their special night.
Gorniak recorded a goal and an assist, while his fellow fifth year Brock Caufield finished the contest with two assists and four blocks. Moe played well upon receiving the starting nod, ending with 25 saves — 13 of which came in the third period — and reaching 2,000 career saves.
“To finish their senior career at the Kohl Center and come up with a win, and how we did it, is really special,” Granato said. “The whole emphasis coming into tonight was to make sure that as teammates and as coaches we found a way to make this [night] special for some kids that gave everything they had to us — not just on the ice but in the classroom and community.”
After falling behind 3-0 in the first period the prior night, the Badgers jumped out to a 3-0 lead just two minutes into the middle frame. A back-door score from Liam Malmquist and bar-down PPG by Carson Bantle at 4:20 and 10:15 in the first gave Wisconsin a lead at the end of the opening frame for the first time since Nov. 19 vs. Lindenwood. De St. Phalle received a cross-zone feed from Cruz Lucius and hammered it home from the doorstep at the start of the second for Wisconsin’s third unanswered score.
The fifth year tandem of Gorniak and Caufield struck not long after. Caufield corralled the puck along the wing and threaded it to Gorniak as he rushed the net. The forward didn’t let the masterful feed go to waste, tapping it past St. Cyr to go up 4-1.
The Spartans wouldn’t go down without a fight, with Nash Nienhuis and Cole Krygier netting goals at 3:50 and 11:16 in the middle frame, respectively. The Badgers, however, were up for the challenge, as Corson Ceulemans and De St. Phalle retaliated with two goals in the closing minutes of the third period. The latter score — a prayer shot from the Badgers blue line that slid into an empty net — put the finishing touches on Wisconsin’s 6-2 victory.
“We’ve definitely made some big jumps over these last couple weeks,” Gorniak said. “We know what our identity is as a team and now it's just about being consistent and playing to that.”
Michigan State found little success on the power play, in large part due to Wisconsin’s stellar penalty kill. The Badgers routinely put their bodies on the line, as Caufield and Daniel Laatsch headlined the pack combining for eight blocks in the game. In 4:25 minutes with a one-man advantage, the Spartans only mustered two shots.
“You saw lots of different desperate plays tonight,” Granato said. “You knew really right from the start we were going to pay a price to win.”
Moments before the opening puck drop, the senior class of Caufield, Gorniak, Moe, Mersch, Shay Donovan, Owen Lindmark and Mike Vorlicky were recognized for their contributions to Wisconsin hockey. Minutes after the final whistle blew, they stood along the goal line and took part in the time-honored singing of “Varsity” one last time.
Following a brief two-series stint at home, the Badgers will travel to University Park to take on the Penn State Nittany Lions. Puck drop is slated for 6 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 24 and 4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25.