The 2011-12 season was truly a work in progress from beginning to end for the Wisconsin men’s hockey team. Perhaps the journey became more impressive considering the way the Badgers went down fighting in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
Entering the season as an extremely young team with no defined expectations, Wisconsin (17-18-2, 11-15-2 WCHA) managed to beat highly ranked teams, protect the Kohl Center’s home ice most nights (12-7-1 home) and have a few individuals put together remarkable seasons despite a record that suggested less than desirable play.
The team’s youth showed early, as the Badgers went 1-8-1 on the road to start the season, but eventually won four out of five on the road just before season’s end – including wins over top 10-ranked Minnesota and Denver – before falling in the only WCHA opening round playoff series to go the full three games.
It was a season that left fans scratching their heads when the Badgers dropped five consecutive games at one point, only to have UW head coach Mike Eaves quoting the inspirational Vince Lombardi after the game three overtime loss that concluded Wisconsin’s season.
“What came to mind is I remember reading about Vince Lombardi, and some games he used to say, ‘we ran out of time; if there was more time on the clock we would have won,’” Eaves said. “I feel like that was the season with the way our kids were playing. We ran out of games this year. We really came into our own the second half and saw growth. It’s tough.”
The Badgers began the season 1-3, digging themselves an early hole from which they never completely recovered. While constantly fighting to eclipse the .500 mark, Wisconsin’s group of 20 underclassmen and six upperclassmen began to gel, showing the beginnings of perhaps a bright future on the horizon for the program.
“It’s too bad we couldn’t be playing like that earlier in the year, especially in the midsection there, when we were going through that drought,” sophomore center Mark Zengerle said. “But that’s how the hockey season is; the playoffs start in March.”
Rookie goaltender Joel Rumpel won three WCHA Rookie of the Week awards during a season that saw him record a UW freshman record of three shutouts, the last of which came when he shut out Denver in the opening playoff game.
Junior defenseman Justin Schultz and Zengerle each had Hobey Baker-caliber seasons. Zengerle came within one game of tying Eaves’ school record point streak, reaching 21 consecutive games. Zengerle also led Wisconsin with 50 total points on the season with 13 goals and 37 assists. Zengerle’s efforts earned him a 2012 Third-Team All-WCHA honor. As a whole, Wisconsin also tied a team record with eight players named to the WCHA All-Academic team.
Schultz became just the third-ever two-time winner of the WCHA Defensive Player of the Year award, as well as a 2012 First-Team All-WCHA selection. In a year that may wind up being his last in the cardinal and white as he contemplates moving on to the NHL, Schultz tallied 44 points on 16 goals and 28 assists.
Schultz has remained quiet on his future thus far, but regardless of whether he should return for his senior season, the Badgers will find themselves loaded and extremely motivated after this season’s tough playoff exit.
“If you look where we have come from the beginning of the year, we have come miles,” Schultz said. “If we did have a couple more games, we would be a dominating force. I still think we can compete with any team in this league right now and across the country.”
Although Eaves said the tears fell in the locker room after their final game, likely over what could have been the end of a career for one senior and possibly others, two key points are clearly visible as the Badgers look to take another step forward into next season.
The Badgers showed how good they could be this season. They know how hard they had to work to improve as much as they did this season and realized how close they were to putting the total package together. Even though they fell short of their ultimate goal, they aren’t going to continue to hang their heads. The players know they did everything they could in Denver and Eaves was proud of the effort.
“One of our goals was have no regrets,” Eaves said. “That’s the one thing we can control, not so much the win or loss but that factor in itself. They left everything out there. We have no regrets.”