If you needed any further proof that the Wisconsin men's hockey team has turned the corner, look no further than Thursday's WCHA quarterfinal contest vs. Minnesota State. In front of a sparse afternoon crowd at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., the fourth-seeded Badgers (20-12-7) were able to put up seven goals in a route of fifth-seeded Minnesota State (24-13-3).
The seven goals were a season-high for Wisconsin, a team that came into the weekend ranked 33rd in the nation in goals-per-game, averaging 2.67 a night.
While the Badgers' overall goal numbers may be lacking, they've been hot as of late. Wisconsin has put up 29 goals in its past seven games, averaging over four goals per game in that timeframe.
"It's a flow and ebb type of thing, and we're in a flow right now," Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves said. "We're riding a wave."
A good start is always crucial, and the Badgers set the tone early physically, and on the scoreboard.
"Game is going to be elevated physically in the playoffs, and our team knew that from the start," UW defenseman Frankie Simonelli said. "We wanted to set the tone."
And set the tone they did.
Tyler Barnes put the Badgers on the board just one minute into the contest on his 12th goal of the season. The junior winger picked up a loose puck in the neutral zone, took it hard to the net and fired a shot over the glove of Minnesota State goaltender Stephon Williams to give UW the early lead.
The Badgers were able to extend their lead five minutes later, this time while shorthanded. With Joseph LaBate in the penalty box for tripping, Wisconsin's Jefferson Dahl jumped on a loose puck and was able to go short-side on Williams to give UW a 2-0 lead.
The goal was from a a sharp angle, and Dahl admitted after the game he was just trying to get the puck on net.
"I knew I had a step on the guy and I wanted to throw it on net and see what happened," Dahl said. "Fortunately, it went in."
Two minutes later, the Badgers pounced on another opportunity to extend their lead even further. Mark Zengerle found himself in a two-on-one situation in the slot and sent a pass to freshman Nic Kerdiles, who one-timed a shot through Williams' five-hole to put Wisconsin up, 3-0.
A timeout by Minnesota State immediately after Wisconsin's third goal seemed to quiet the Badgers' tempo, but the bounced back in the second period on Dahl's second of the night.
Entering the zone on a rare shorthanded 3-on-1, Dahl set up a give-and-go with Jake McCabe, who gave it right back, letting Dahl chip a shot over the sprawling Williams for the 4-0 Wisconsin lead.
The goal was Dahl's seventh of the season, but fourth against Minnesota State in five games played.
"I can't really put my finger on it," Dahl said of having success against MSU. "The puck just seems to go in when I play these guys. I just try to work hard, and throw pucks to the net."
Minnesota State found its way back into the game while on the power play later in the period. After John Ramage was whistled for a five-minute major penalty for charging, MSU was able to finally get on the board on Zach Palmquist's seventh of the season.
With Ramage still in the box serving his major and a Minnesota State player off for checking after the whistle, the Badgers were able to reclaim their four-goal lead.
Taking the puck hard to the net, Barnes was able to avoid the poke-check from Williams and slide the puck in the net as he was being hauled to the ice. The goal was Barnes' second of the night and 13th of the season.
Just over a minute later, Minnesota State notched its second power-play goal during Ramage's major penalty. This time, it was Eriah Hayes one-timing a pass from J.P. LaFontaine to cut the Wisconsin lead to 5-2. The power-play goal was Hayes' 13th of the season and 20th goal overall.
The Badgers went on to add third-period goals from Simonelli and sophomore Joseph LaBate.
Barnes was unreal on Thursday afternoon, playing one of his best games as a Badger. Afterward, he noted that the whole team was working hard for their opportunities.
"Every line is getting chances, and now they are starting to go in."
With the win, the Badgers advance to Friday's semifinal game vs. top-seeded St. Cloud State. It's another must-win game for Wisconsin, who must keep winning for a chance at an at-large birth in the NCAA tournament.
Friday's game time is set for 2:07 p.m. CT on Fox Sports North.
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