The role of underdog is a precarious one at best. At worst, the underdog loses like it’s supposed to, maybe blown out by a superior opponent. But at its best, the underdog is the role that movies are made of, the Cinderella that everyone hopes will show up and perform the unexpected.
Some underdogs carry more weight than others and are remembered as legends for eternity, while some are appreciated for a moment and forgotten.
The Wisconsin men’s hockey team isn’t going to upset the Russians in the Olympics like Team USA did in 1980 and have Disney buy the movie rights, but regardless of what is to come for the Wisconsin men’s hockey team, it is officially in the underdog role for the final two regular season series at Bemidji State and Minnesota, as well as the WCHA playoffs.
The Badgers have won just one road game all season, but with Saturday’s win over No. 10 Denver, Wisconsin has six victories against teams that are ranked — or have otherwise received votes in this week’s USA Today or USCHO.com’s national rankings — and is confident heading into the final stretch of the season.
“As a player and coach you find yourself in this role at some point in your career, and it’s one that you watch these kids practice today and what they sensed on Saturday and what they felt as a team,” head coach Mike Eaves said. “It’s just, maybe we are starting to play our best hockey of the year. Then we have to take that into some tough environment and win on the road. There is just the thought that our best hockey is yet to come.”
The underdog role isn’t completely unfamiliar for this team. Just a season ago the Badgers finished seventh in the WCHA standing, just one point behind Colorado College and the top six spots that earn a home ice playoff series in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
The Badgers managed to steal game one against Colorado College 3-1 and held third period leads in game two and three before falling in overtime in each. This season, Wisconsin is tied for 10th place in the WCHA standings and has already been eliminated from home ice contention.
“We were a good team [last year]; we were pretty dangerous, and it’s kind of similar to this [year],” sophomore center Mark Zengerle said. “I don’t know if one of those home ice teams will want to play us if we get hot because we can be dangerous, and I don’t think our standing has showed what we are as a team.”
But being the lower-seeded team isn’t always a bad thing. It offers all kinds of incentives to win that a first place team never has the chance to revel in. If anything, the top-seeded teams are expected to win and if they don’t, the season is viewed as a disappointment.
“Personally I like [being the underdog],” junior forward Ryan Little said. “It gives you that little extra fire and maybe the chance a team takes you lightly. I like being in that spot as opposed to being expected to win.”
Playing as the underdog also has a unique set of emotions of its own.
“In one sense it can fire up your own team, and kind of gives you a little more determination and desire,” Zengerle said. “In the other spectrum, maybe a team will go in taking us lightly, especially in their own rink and they think they have that advantage.”
Perhaps knowing the fact that they have been mathematically eliminated from finishing in the top six will take the pressure off of the Badgers, no longer needing to play catch up from so many points back in the standings.
“You have to be in that mindset, it’s do or die as an underdog,” Little said. “Most people have heard that analogy of a dog kind of backed into a corner and you do everything you can to fight and claw your way out. I think you might have a little more fight to you when you’re the underdog.”
While Eaves doesn’t shy away from using the underdog label he also wants to make sure his team doesn’t abandon principle and still recognizes the value of working to improve game by game.
“There is a mindset of being a spoiler but really it’s the way you’re perceiving it.” Eaves said. “This group of young people and the coaching staff, they know where they have come from since the beginning of the year. They know the direction in which they are going, and that excites them. That is what keeps pushing us to come out here and bury ourselves on the ice and battle with each other because we still have a sense that we know we’re becoming a better team day by day.”