MADISON—The Wisconsin men’s hockey team is hoping the rearview mirror points the way forward.
Last weekend Denver marched into the Kohl Center and swept the host Badgers, handing them just their third and fourth losses of the season. Wisconsin has not lamented those defeats. Rather, the Badgers are focusing on them as potential positives, as a learning experience that could help propel them to a national championship.
“We had a lot of good things going and we were going out and beating teams and we knew that we could play with pretty much any team in the country,” senior forward Nick Licari said. “And then Denver came in and pretty much handed it to us, and put things in perspective for us.”
“In the grand scheme of things I think it’s hugely important,” junior forward Jake Dowell said. “It’s kind of like it’s a little wake-up call for us.”
Wake-up calls have been rare for the Badgers this season. Disruptions are few and far between when a team is 18-4-2 and just spent two months ranked No. 1 in the nation before slipping to No. 2 this week. Last week was different. In midweek the Badgers lost goaltender Brian Elliott to a knee injury. The loss shook the team at its core and while freshman Shane Connelly was fine in net, Wisconsin was simply out-played by the Pioneers.
“When we’re a top-ranked team and we’re a few points ahead of people in the standings of the WCHA teams want to knock us off,” Dowell said. “We’re going to have to give better effort and we’re going to have to be more consistent and have that edge when we play if we want to come out with wins against some of these dominant teams.”
The last setback UW had, a 4-2 loss to Michigan Tech Dec. 9, was followed by five straight wins, including a key road sweep of Colorado College.
“You know you hate to lose that game to Michigan Tech earlier, but that was also a wake-up call,” Dowell said. “We came back and we responded from that and had some great wins after that.”
Denver’s veteran presence—and its back-to-back national titles—helped keep UW from getting down over the losses.
“Sooner or later you’re going to lose a couple games here or there,” Dowell said. “I think we looked at it as a learning experience. That’s a team that’s won two national championships in a row. They have a lot of guys that have been there and have played in big games. They know how to play against good teams.”
The defeats sliced the Badgers’ lead in the WCHA standings from eight to four points with Minnesota coming to town this weekend.
“We had a pretty good talk about it (Monday),” Licari said. “We got some things out on the table that were on the guys’ chest. And we just talked about things and what we can do to get better every night. We talked about how we’re better on the road, technically speaking, then at home and why that is and what we can do to bring some of that atmosphere back to Madison here and the Kohl Center.”
Wisconsin is a respectable 9-4-1 at home, but is an incredible 9-0-1 on the road.
The importance of this weekend’s games should make it easy for UW to focus. The Gophers and Badgers are not only heated rivals, but they are two of the top ranked teams in the country. And if Minnesota sweeps the Badgers the two will be tied for first place in the quest for the McNaughton Cup.
With that in mind, UW coach Mike Eaves feels his team will have no trouble getting up for this weekend’s games in the sold out Kohl Center.
“I think part of our challenge will be not to have this group over try,” Eaves said. “Because when they over try they get out of their ideal performance state and then they are not as effective.”
Eaves said his players were guilty of trying too hard on several occasions last weekend. Pressing to make a play, they ended up making a mistake instead.
“Our task is to batten down the hatches, get through this tough time,” Eaves said, “and we certainly want to get back on the winning note because you don’t want to get in that downward spiral. And that will be part of the task of playing well this weekend.”