Wisconsin One Win From Capping Comeback Season
This time last year, Wisconsin wasn’t even playing. The Badgers had suffered a defeat in Thursday’s play-in game at the Xcel Energy Center, an unsurprising result given the team’s underwhelming season.
Saturday, they’ll play for a Big Ten championship.
And they’re going to need it. Wisconsin is currently on the outside of the Pairwise bubble at 17 and needs to earn an automatic bid to return to the NCAA tournament.
Either way, Wisconsin has come a long way back in a short time under the new regime led by head coach Tony Granato. And there were times towards the end of the regular season that it looked like that would have to be sufficient.
But a strong performance against Ohio State, a 2-1 win in Friday's semifinal, puts Wisconsin back in the conversation to see its season go beyond this week, which would be quite the cherry on top.
Wisconsin got goals from Luke Kunin and Will Johnson. The third-period Tally from Johnson broke the 1-1 tie in the third period. The win marked Wisconsin’s 19th of the season, over double the team’s win total from last year.
“It was a new thing for our team, we're still learning about ourselves, so we didn't handle it as well as we would like,” Granato said. “But I loved our week of practice, I loved our week coming into today's game. I loved the way we played the game. And I agree, I think this was — I said this a few minutes ago, this is what college hockey is. It's two teams that have a ton of pride, two teams that have been — well, certainly one team, they were ranked in the top 10 pretty much most of the year. So it's a heck of a hockey team we played. We had some success against them earlier in the year.”
The Badgers narrowly won the season series against the Buckeyes, taking the 3-2 series lead. Wisconsin swept Ohio State in January but lost the last two games to end the season.
“From the beginning of the week, Monday, we talked about just sticking to a game plan and wearing the team out,” Kunin said. “I thought we did that throughout all three periods. And everyone just bought into what we had to do to be successful tonight, and I think that's why we played so well.”
The last time the Badgers skated in the Big Ten championship game was 2014, when Wisconsin took the title from Ohio State in overtime. Back then the team was headlined by players like Nic Kerdiles, Michael Mersch, Joel Rumpel and Mark Zengerle.
And Mike Eaves was the head coach.
With the exception of Grant Besse — who was a freshman on that team — most of the names are different. Granato is now the bench boss, and it’s taken him a season to bring the Badgers back to the top of the conference. Trent Frederic and Cameron Hughes are pulling the team. Freshman netminder Jack Berry was a big factor in Wisconsin’s win.
Granato — who spent two years with the Red Wings — is just one game away from bringing the Badgers back to prominence.
“I'm glad I had that experience, and to come back here brings great memories mostly of the people and the history of this organization and the tradition,” Granato said. “There's so much pride in Red Wing hockey, and to come back here and be able to play in its final season, whether it be college or it wouldn't matter, it's exciting. Obviously for our team, this is a huge weekend for our team to try to get a tournament bid, and hopefully we'll play the same way tomorrow and we'll have great memories of my last two games here.”