In the devastating loss Monday night to Penn State, the Wisconsin men’s hockey team now finds themselves at a pivotal point in their season.
Prior to the faceoff against the Nittany Lions (13-14-0), the Badgers (14-11-7) found themselves tied for No. 17 in the PairWise Rankings — a system designed to imitate the NCAA tournament selection process of the top 16 teams. The confidence from the previous night’s 5-0 win and a victory over then-No. 2 Minnesota a week earlier was all but buried in the 3-2 overtime loss Monday as Wisconsin now sits 11 places back at No. 28.
While recognizing the impact of the loss on their tournament hopes, head coach Mike Eaves is looking ahead to their only other shot at a seed in the tournament: winning every game going forward.
“It just squeezes the importance of our last four games…we have to primarily win out so that is our task at hand,” Eaves said.
The silver lining of UW’s loss is that it comes outside of conference play, where Wisconsin is battling for home-ice advantage — currently sitting tied for sixth place with 27 points — in the first round of the WCHA tournament. A trip to a tough Nebraska-Omaha team followed by a home series in the Coliseum against St. Cloud State will round out the rest of their regular season.
With a similar mindset as Eaves, the team has accepted its fate and is ready to push ahead.
“What can you do about it? It happened, now we have to go back to work. We have to win-out,” sophomore defenseman Jake McCabe said. “I guess it is obviously a painful loss here but we will start rebuilding right now.”
Making the uphill battle steeper for UW is the potential injury to senior forward Derek Lee, who left the ice halfway through the first period with visible pain and did not return to play.
This isn’t the first time this season the Badgers played without their breakout center. Lee suffered a concussion back on Jan. 26 against Alaska-Anchorage and missed the following series against North Dakota and game one against Bemidji State.
Eaves did not have an update on Lee immediately following Monday’s loss.
“I haven’t talked to the doctor yet … I think they will have to wait and see how it is tomorrow [Tuesday] and let us know,” Eaves said.
Lee has been a consistent component of the Wisconsin offense all season long as a key playmaker on the ice. He is second on the team with 21 points, with 18 coming off a team-high assists.
Where UW will feel his loss most is on the already struggling power play. The team ranks last in the nation with just over 10 percent success with a man-advantage. Lee has been considered the base of the power play unit that includes McCabe and junior forwards Tyler Barnes, Michael Mersch and Mark Zengerle.
The team believes this combination can get the job done, but injuries preventing the unit from playing together in the recent past — McCabe missed the Bemidji State series due to an ankle injury — have hindered their performance.
Without its rock on the power play for almost the entire game Monday, the Badgers came up short as four opportunities with the man-advantage — three in the third period — failed to end with the deafening sound of the horn.
Despite Lee’s absence in the three final UW power plays, Wisconsin showed signs its power play is improving. With the game tied 2-2 and fewer than seven minutes left in regulation, UW was given a golden opportunity to take a late-game lead.
The team managed to keep the puck inside the Nittany Lions’ defensive end throughout almost the entire two minutes and worked the puck easily around the four defensemen. Finally getting close, Zengerle whipped the puck across the crease to Barnes waiting to tap it in on the back door, but he could not connect with the puck quick enough.
The fate of the power play eventually became the outcome of the game with UW coming up just short in overtime.
“It was missed opportunities in the end that was our downfall,” Eaves said.