Team of the Week: Wisconsin
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
A little more than a week ago, Wisconsin suffered a devastating loss. The Badgers dropped a 3-2 overtime decision to Penn State. The debutant program ending its season with a win over a program like Wisconsin sent shockwaves through college hockey that night.
Aside from undoing much of the progress the Badgers made in the Pairwise, it also taught Wisconsin a lesson it turned into motivation. UW recovered and swept a two-game series with Nebraska-Omaha to earn CHN's Team of the Week honor for the second time this season.
A week before the loss to Penn State, the Badgers won a critical game against Minnesota at Soldier Field. Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves saw his team go through a full spectrum of emotion in those seven days that helped the team learn to carry an even keel into the weekend with UNO.
"It was a good reminder of what can happen when you're not sharp," Eaves said. "We were coming off the high of beating Minnesota at Soldier Field, then that Monday we had a difficult result. We created more than enough chances, but we couldn't finish. You hope there's a silver lining after games like that, and I think the way we played last weekend showed that."
The Badgers scored with 1 minute, 42 seconds remaining in regulation last Friday to pick up the first win against UNO. The following evening, a four-goal second period lifted them to a 6-2 win over the Mavericks. Those games, like most Wisconsin has played in the second half, were essentially playoff games with both teams desperately fighting for position within the WCHA and Pairwise.
Eaves liked the fight he saw from his club, along with its commitment to smart, efficient play in all three zones. Against St. Cloud State this weekend, Eaves expects to see more of the same. Dynamic scorers like Michael Mersch and Mark Zengerle carried UW, but he knows it'll take more than a nice goal or two to take critical points from SCSU.
"We focus on two key areas: playing well with the puck and playing smart without the puck," Eaves said. "Against the teams we play, and the teams we'll have to beat, you have to play as well without the puck as you do with it. These teams take advantage of the smallest mistakes."
Eliminating any mistakes is something Wisconsin can control. The results elsewhere that will affect where it ends the season are beyond their grasp. Forgetting that and worrying about the Pairwise or even the WCHA standings prior to the game could lead to devastating losses. The Badgers enter the weekend tied for fourth in the WCHA with Minnesota State. A successful weekend could mean anything from home ice in the first round of the conference playoffs to a share of the MacNaughton Cup. Conversely, forgetting the importance of the task at hand could mean a road series to start its final WCHA tournament.
"This time of year is just fun for players. These are the kinds of games you want to play in," Eaves said. "They feel like championship games and, really, the last few months have felt like playoff hockey for us anyway.
"It's important just to stay focused on the things we can control," he continued. "There are so many different permutations and results that can leave us is different positions. All we're thinking about is playing good hockey against a very good St. Cloud State team."
That is a good strategy for the team, but fans are getting a bit restless in Madison, with the team in danger of failing to make the NCAAs for the fifth time in seven years. Even if the team has learned from the Penn State loss, it could still come back to bite them when it comes to the Pairwise.
Regardless, the future is bright for Wisconsin, with next year lining up to be a big one. But the Badgers would like "the future" to include its next few weeks. And with things coming together, especially offensively, it may just be.
Mersch recorded his 19th and 20th goals of the season in last Saturday's win. Beyond that, the line of Nic Kerdiles, Mark Zengerle and Tyler Barnes contributed three goals and seven assists to the cause. Eaves knows his offensive leaders will need to play well, but the effective play he saw without the puck is just as important.
The team will get to draw on some old glory this weekend when it plays these big games at its old home — Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which was known then as the Dane County Coliseum.
The playoff atmosphere present will make each scoring chance a potential source of momentum for the teams. The Badgers eliminated many of the mistakes that quickly become goals last weekend. Goaltender Joel Rumpel responded by stopping 51 of the 56 shots he faced against UNO.
"After last weekend, our offense got a lot of attention, but goaltending needs to be the story," Eaves said. "But they'll be the first to tell you that their jobs are easier when we play well in front of them. We did that last weekend, and we picked up some important wins. We'll have to be even better this weekend."