March 23, 2014 PRINT Bookmark and Share

A Breath of Fresh Air

Wisconsin Climbs to the Mountaintop in First Big Ten Title Game

by Tony Jovenitti/CHN Reporter

 (photo: Scott Pierson)

(photo: Scott Pierson)

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Heading into the postseason, Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves told his team that postseason hockey is like climbing Mount Everest.

“The higher up you go, the less oxygen there is in the air,” he said. “Games get tougher.”

The Badgers found that out in Saturday’s Big Ten Championship game against Ohio State. Trailing 4-2 in the third period, the Badgers scored two goals in 28 seconds to send the game into overtime before Mark Zengerle buried the championship-clinching goal.

“Tonight was a tough game, and we had to overcome being behind,” Eaves said. “I thought our group showed some maturity.”

The last time the Badgers played at Xcel Energy Center, they needed to win or else their season was over. This weekend, though, their opponents were the ones playing in win-or-go-home mode.

“[Ohio State] was the more desperate team early in the game,” Badgers coach Mike Eaves said. “Then it seemed like we got desperate and played to a higher level and got the job done.”

Last season, a slow start and a late-season loss to Penn State meant the Badgers needed to win three games in three days if they wanted to advance to the NCAA tournament. They accomplished that feat, winning the WCHA tournament here.

This year, the Badgers’ 22-10-2 regular season record safely earned them an NCAA tournament bid before they even traveled to St. Paul. But Zengerle said that his team didn’t want to be complacent.

“We knew we were going to play next weekend no matter what, but that’s not the attitude we came in with. We wanted to win,” he said. “It’s important for us to get this first Big Ten championship. As you saw, we had no quit in our game. And our attitude reflected out there.”

That attitude certainly reflected in the third period. Ohio State’s Tanner Fritz gave the Buckeyes a 4-2 lead with just 6:52 remaining. The Badgers wasted no time responding, as Jefferson Dahl buried the puck just 20 seconds later.  Then, 28 seconds after that, Tyler Barnes’ goal sent the game to overtime.

Eaves said the game provided the Badgers with some valuable experience in a high-pressure situation heading into the NCAA Tournament.

“Those are good lessons to put in our pocket as we continue into next weekend because the games are all going to be similar to this,” Eaves said. “You’re going to have to battle through some things. I thought our group showed some maturity.”

That maturity stemmed from Wisconsin’s seniors. The final three goals of the game were scored by Badger seniors, and this Wisconsin squad features eight seniors. Eaves said their leadership paved the way.

“When we leave the room, we need those young men to carry on with what was said and to do it on the bench,” Eaves said. “They did that, and they’ve done that all year.”

The Badgers hope to take that leadership and the experience from Saturday’s game forward into the NCAA Tournament—where the Badgers likely earned a No. 1 seed.

“I’m very proud of these young men, especially our seniors,” he said. “I thought that they provided real good leadership on the bench, in the locker room and then they ultimately got it done on the ice for us.

Eaves also said that he’s glad his team needed to overcome adversity in a high-pressure situation before the NCAA Tournament.

“We can talk about it, but the fact that we lived through it and handled it — you can’t replace that with anything,” he said.

“It prepares us for less oxygen in the air as we climb this mountain.”

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