The Wisconsin men’s hockey team punched its ticket to St. Paul with a sweep of Minnesota-Duluth this weekend, setting its eyes on the WCHA Final Five and a chance at winning its first Broadmoor Trophy since 1998.
After a miserable 1-7-2 stretch early in the season, the Badgers have turned their season around and finished on an impressive 18-5-5 run. The stench of the early season struggles continues to hang over the heads of Wisconsin, which is now fighting for an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament. The first obstacle in the way of Wisconsin’s first tournament bid since 2010 will be Minnesota State.
This year the two teams split their series at two wins each with the Badgers winning the last two, both in overtime. Needless to say, the game will likely be a battle between two very evenly matched teams. In his Monday press conference, Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves credited Minnesota State’s success this year to two main factors: coaching and goaltending.
“First of all, they are well coached,” Eaves said. “Mike [Hastings] has gone in there and clearly has a plan.
“Also their goaltending has been great,” Eaves added. “The young man has had a phenomenal year and leads that charge for that team.”
That second statement should strike fear in the hearts of Badger fans as Wisconsin has struggled all year to put points on the board. UW has scored just 69 goals this season, placing them 10th in the WCHA in that category. Only Bemidji State and Alaska Anchorage — the bottom two teams in the conference — scored fewer goals in 2013.
Meanwhile, the Mavericks goaltender, freshman Stephon Williams, is leading the WCHA with a goal against average of 1.84. He also ranks in the top three in save percentage and winning percentage in the conference.
Despite the looming Minnesota State defense, Eaves remains optimistic about his team’s chance this weekend in St. Paul, Minn., noting he has always been a big believer in mental toughness of his Badger teams. Eaves believes that this team has the ability to persevere, especially after they handled such a rough start to their season.
“I think this group ranks high with their mental toughness,” Eaves said. “They understand the mindset and maturity level that you need to have if you want to try to win a championship because of the tough times in the beginning of the year.”
Mental toughness is going to be key for this Badgers team toward the end of its year as it has only two options for getting into the NCAA tournament. Either the team can win the WCHA title and get an automatic bid or keep high hopes for an entrance to the field as an at-large bid through a very uncertain selection process.
Clearly, the Badgers have the former on their mind heading north this weekend.
“[St. Paul] is really a city that embraces the sport of hockey,” Eaves said. “The building will be packed and we will be right in the eye of the storm. The way you’re treated, that level of play, it is what you did all that work for in the summer. All the stuff that you put up with all year, all the injuries, it’s all to have a chance to be on that stage.
“It all comes down to one game by one game. If you look at the whole enchilada, that’s a big gorilla to eat, and you got to start with the first bite.”
It would be easy to become a bit nervous in that kind of environment, but Eaves’ ideology of taking it one game at a time should calm the team’s nerves, even if it is attempting to eat a gorilla enchilada, whatever that metaphor may mean.
If the Badgers fail to win the WCHA tournament title, their road to the NCAA tournament is rocky and uncertain. Despite being one of the best teams in the nation over the past two or three months, the Badgers early struggles hold just as much weight as their recent success.
To make the NCAA tournament, the Badgers are going to need some help from various teams throughout the country in order to sneak in as a 4-seed. They can do themselves a favor with a solid showing, starting Thursday night.