Time will tell if this is the defining turning point in what had been a disheartening season for Northern Michigan and head coach Walt Kyle.
Entering its non-conference tilt against Wisconsin, Northern Michigan hadn’t beaten Wisconsin since 1995 and hadn’t put together back-to-back wins since March 2008, one of the main reasons being the Wildcats’ offense entered the weekend ranked 56th out of 58 NCAA Division I schools in scoring (1.67 goals per game) and had scored three goals or more only four times.
All of those numbers and records are a thing of the past now.
Despite Wisconsin’s power play scoring on 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 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 UW goalie Shane Connelly’s pad less than five minutes later to cut the lead in half at 15:17.
“There are piano players and there are piano movers and we really wanted our guys to identify who they were and play that role,” Kyle said. “Florek gets two goals tonight and I thought that was one of the best lines on the ice all weekend. Florek is a mover and (that line) was dangerous all week.”
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.
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 in 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 a Wildcats’ 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 Badgers team that couldn’t stop the bleeding.
“They created a wave of momentum and we couldn’t stop it,” Badgers’ coach Mike Eaves said.
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.
However, 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 faceoff 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 it 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.