by Tom Reale/CHN Correspondent
ST. PAUL, Minn. It was a valiantly waged battle, but the fight is over.
There will be a new champion in April.
The Wisconsin Badgers took the NCAA championship on their home turf last season, but after their 4-2 loss at the Xcel Energy Center, they will, barring an undiscovered miracle scenario, finish their season in the WCHA Third Place Game on Saturday and will not be extended the opportunity to try and defend that title away from the Badger State.
"It's tough right now," said senior Andrew Joudrey. "It's tough to let that sink in."
That Wisconsin was even still in the discussion after struggling through the difficult season that they endured is a testament to how difficult it is to put the champion out.
After a fairly strong first few games, the Badgers were knocked down a few pegs by Boston College, the team who'd been on the losing end of Wisconsin 's celebration last April. The Eagles swept into Madison and walked away with a pair of wins, and things started to unravel. A loss at Alaska-Anchorage. Swept at Denver. Swept at Minnesota. A loss to Michigan. A holiday beat down at the hands of Clarkson.
There were wins here and there, but people were starting to count out the Badgers. The knock was simple — they couldn't put the puck in the net despite continuing to have the prowess they had a season earlier in keeping it out of their own.
But things started to turn around late in the season. A home sweep of Alaska-Anchorage. Three points from St. Cloud State on senior weekend. Three points at Duluth. The offense was scoring just enough to make Wisconsin dangerous again.
They may have made themselves one of the most competent seven-seeds of the WCHA tournament in some time. They wasted no time in dispatching a Denver team on the decline, winning 3-2 and 2-1 to earn their ticket to St. Paul.
Wisconsin overcame an upstart Michigan Tech team in convincing fashion, dumping the Huskies 4-0. The defense was on. The offense was on. It was time to fear the Badgers once more.
They even held a 2-1 lead over the MacNaughton champion Gophers. But it was not to be.
As time ticked down in the second period, the Badgers were fighting to head to the locker room with a 2-2 deadlock. But with nine seconds left until the break, referee Jon Campion raised his arm, and Jake Dowell was off for hooking.
Five seconds later, Blake Wheeler had scored his second goal of the night, and the Badgers were heading in down a goal — a whole different nut to crack.
"I'm helpless in the box," said Dowell. "Whatever I think about the call, it doesn't matter. I was still in the box and there's nothing I can do about that now. Like Andrew always says, it is what it is."
That goal proved to be the difference in the game. The Badgers simply couldn't put another puck by Kellen Briggs for the remainder of the evening, and just like that, their quest to defend their national championship was over, just as it appeared to be gaining steam.
"It was a disappointing loss," said head coach Mike Eaves. "There were some teary eyes in that room."
Still, the Badgers are not willing to give up hope, praying for some unforeseen and unlikely miracle that would give them the opportunity to fight again next week.
"Coming into this tournament, they said we had to win it all to have a chance at the NCAA," said Eaves. "I didn't understand why we go into Denver , they're tenth, we win both games, they slip to 14th, we stay in 20th. They gave me a word I've never heard before, 'kludge.' I looked it up. It's a computer slang word meaning that there are too many moving parts. Maybe the moving parts will switch around if we win tomorrow and we'll still have a chance."
The team has the same attitude toward the consolation game.
"There's still another game to be played," said Joudrey. "We still don't know exactly what's going to happen. There's no quit in this team. We still have an awful lot of pride, and we're going to give it everything we've got."
Pride may be all that Wisconsin has left after a tough encore to the ultimate prize, although they may still be able to revel in playing the spoiler role — their opponent, St. Cloud State, needs to win to guarantee themselves a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
"St. Cloud is a great opponent," said Joudrey. "We need to be on top of our game if we're going to get what we want."