If senior goalie Shane Connelly had his way, Michigan State would appear on Wisconsin’s schedule as many times as humanly possible.
After stopping 19 shots and earning a 2-0 shutout in his only other appearance against the Spartans in 2006, Connelly hardly had to lift a glove.
Facing a Spartans’ offense struggling to find its rhythm, Connelly stopped just 11 shots and notched his first-career assist, helping the Badgers get a 3-1 victory over Michigan State in the College Hockey Showcase.
“I like matching up against (them) and Michigan State is a top program,” Connelly said. “I’ve been fortunate the two times we played that (we) played real good in front of me. Last time we played them, Michigan State didn’t have much left in the tank. Tonight, I didn’t have to do very much. The team did a lot of the work for me.”
With a young defensive core in front of him, Connelly had been counted on a lot in his final season to simply put Wisconsin (6-7-2) in a position to win. After struggling earlier in the season (giving up 13 goals in his first two games), Connelly has turned it on in the month of November.
Despite his six-goal relapse against St. Cloud State last Friday, the senior has allowed an average of 2.14 goals per game and is stopping 92 percent of attempted shots. It’s no coincidence that Connelly’s play has led to plenty of success for Wisconsin, as the Badgers are 7-1-1 in the month of November.
“In the game of hockey, the goaltender has got to be one of your better players (and) he’s done that for the most part,” UW head coach Mike Eaves said. “It goes in conjunction with the people in front of him. When we were struggling, we talked about the need to fire on more pistons. We’re firing on more pistons right now and the goaltender has got to be a main piston in that engine firing right.”
Three of the other pistons that were firing Friday night were Wisconsin’s newly-formed second line of Ben Grotting, John Mitchell and Matt Thurber. Playing for the first time together, the trio each scored a goal Friday night and delivered a combined four assists, giving Wisconsin all the momentum it would need.
Grotting got the Badgers on the board first when he took advantage of a rebound and fired the puck over goalie Jeff Lerg’s left shoulder at 16:42 in the second for his first goal of the year.
Wisconsin doubled its lead in the third when Mitchell received a cross-ice pass from Thurber on a two-on-one breakaway and threw the puck above Lerg’s stick at 7:27.
Michigan State (4-9-2) finally broke through during a five-on-three power play when Tim Crowley registered his third goal of the season, cutting the lead to one with six minutes, 17 seconds left.
With his two linemates already on the board, Thurber got his chance when he cleaned up a rebound to beat Lerg to give the Badgers a two-goal lead with less than three minutes left, icing the game.
“They kept it simple,” Eaves said of his second line. “They made early passes, made good shots, worked hard for the puck and did a lot of the little things well and were able to finish it off tonight. The best way to find out chemistry is to find out during the course of the game. Perhaps we have found something with this group.”
Stuck in the program’s worst-ever scoring drought (having scored six goals in the past seven games combined), the Spartans continued their futility, posting their seventh-straight game of one goal or less. One of the main reasons Michigan State is struggling to tally points is that the Spartans are struggling to simply fire shots, attempting a total of only 12 shots, with a period high of only five.
The 12 shots given up by Wisconsin were the fewest the Badgers have allowed since 1983, but it’s been a common theme for Michigan State, as the Spartans are only firing an average of 23.6 shots per game.
“We have a long way to go,” Michigan State coach Rick Comley. “That’s an understatement. We were overmatched and their defense is really good. They can really control the game and we can’t relieve the pressure off ourselves right now.”
Lerg did all he could against the Badgers, as the Spartan senior was bombarded from all angles. Although he made 50 saves, Lerg was fortunate to give up only the three goals, as Lerg was forced to scramble all over the crease, giving multiple Badgers wide-open scoring chances they couldn’t convert on.
From the other crease, Connelly could feel his pain, knowing full well what it’s like to be counted on to try and make every save for a struggling team.
“He stood on his head and gave his team a chance to win,” Connelly said. “It reminds me back to the Denver game earlier in the year. I know exactly how he felt. It’s nice to have a night I had. It’s different than what I am used to (but) at the same time, it’s nice to get a little bit of a break and let the other goalie do some of the work.”
Wisconsin will stay in Madison and host No.14 Michigan, a 6-3 winner over No.1 Minnesota Friday night, Saturday night while the Spartans fly to Minneapolis to battle the Gophers.