Rock bottom is always a possibility you desperately hope never becomes a reality.
But for the Wisconsin men’s hockey team, it was an all too real experience. The Badgers started the season 1-7-2 after boasting the highest of expectations prior to the start of the season.
To put it plainly: It was ugly.
UW struggled to put the puck in the net as its roster kept shrinking due to suspensions and injuries. Before anyone could fully wrap their head around what was happening, it seemed a squad that held so much promise was destined for mediocrity.
Fast forward eight weeks. Campus was deserted. The Badgers were just three games into the second half of their season and on the road in Mankato, Minn.
Friday was a thrill. Minnesota State and Wisconsin exchanged blows in the Jan. 11 game, skating to a 3-3 tie after regulation. With an extra five minutes on the clock, the Badgers were headed into their sixth overtime game of the season, but still looking for their first overtime win.
With about 30 seconds left on the clock, it looked like UW was going to skate to yet another extra-period tie. The Badgers advanced the puck into their offensive zone as senior defenseman John Ramage skated across the slot and chipped up a shot. At the 4:28 mark of overtime, Ramage netted the game winner, extending Wisconsin’s unbeaten streak to nine. The next night Ramage did it again — in overtime with only 6.2 seconds left in extra time — earning Wisconsin its first sweep in Mankato.
After starting the season with only one win in 10 games, Wisconsin didn’t drop a decision in its next 11, with another win the following weekend at home against No. 8 Miami. With a 8-7-5 overall record and a 6-5-5 mark in WCHA play after the sweep at Mankato, Wisconsin moved into sixth-place in the conference, trailing Denver and Nebraska-Omaha, tied for first, by just three points.
Following a non-conference series with Miami — where the Badgers split with a 1-0 win Friday night and a 2-1 loss Saturday this past weekend — Wisconsin currently sits at eighth in the conference and five points out of first with a 9-8-5 overall record.
“We just kept working hard and kept sticking to the plan,” Ramage said. “We believed in ourselves the whole time. … Once we got a few wins, the confidence went up and now we’re just trying to take it one game at a time and keep the streak going.”
The 11-game streak didn’t happen at the drop of a hat. It started with a trip to then-No. 1 Denver where the Badgers picked up a 1-1 tie and a 3-1 victory. In fact, only five of the 11 unbeaten games were played on home ice where the Badgers went 3-0-2 during that time.
Over that stretch Wisconsin’s offense found new life, scoring 30 goals from 13 different skaters — Ramage, junior forward Michael Mersch and sophomore forward Joseph LaBate led the team with four goals apiece during that stretch, while forwards Tyler Barnes, Jefferson Dahl and Derek Lee had three goals each.
“The whole team is just playing better,” Ramage said. “There’s not a whole lot that has changed (from the beginning of the season), the thing that’s changed is probably the details. … It’s just not one person, it’s everyone stepping up at different times. I think that’s the key to our success right now.”
Prior to that 11-game stretch, the Badgers only netted 18 goals from eight players. Eight of those goals came off Mersch’s stick — the next goal leader had only two (Zengerle, Jake McCabe and Ryan Little).
But only days before classes started up again that unbeaten streak — and subsequently a seven-game win streak — came to an end in 2-1 defensive brawl with Miami. Despite evening things up one-all in the second period and putting 34 shots on net, Miami used an early power play goal and the go-ahead goal in the second period to ensure it didn’t leave Madison without a victory.
“It felt funny to be in the locker room and not have a celebration going on,” head coach Mike Eaves said in his post-game press conference Saturday night. “It has been a long time since we’ve had to deal with a loss. As we take stock of the game tonight, I thought for the first eight to 10 minutes [Miami] had a little more jump in their step. Obviously, they were a team that lost last night and they came out with a little burr in their fanny. But I thought it evened out after that.”
“We were down in their zone the whole time. We attempted 28 shots in the third period. We did the things we needed to do in the third period to try and get us back in the game and we came up short. We didn’t get the ‘dirty one,’ we didn’t get the timely goal to tie it up. … Moving beyond that, this weekend elevated our understanding of how we need to play at a high level if we want to be around at the end of the year.”
Despite the recent loss, there’s no denying Wisconsin has straightened out its season. With such a successful turnaround, the Badgers are leaving their early season woes behind them. They don’t draw on it for any motivation or look back and think, “man, look how far we’ve come.” For them, it’s all about what’s next.
“We really don’t look back to the beginning of the season,” Ramage said. “We only look back to the record that we had and what we had to do to get out of that. … We’re not a team that makes excuses for ourselves. We just want to go out and work hard.”
With 14 games left — 12 of which are WCHA contests — including an outdoor game against archrival Minnesota at Soldier Field, Wisconsin is hoping its initial preseason expectations are still possible.
It won’t be an easy road, particularly with away games at North Dakota and Nebraska-Omaha, but Wisconsin has already faced a season’s worth of adversity. They know what they’re up against.
“Every game is going to be a battle now from here on out,” Eaves said.
But even though it’s going to be tough, the Badgers are ready to bounce back once again.
“Our effort was definitely there and we just have to keep going,” McCabe said. “It’s time to start a new streak.”