Just keep rolling. That’s their mantra.
Entering yet another playoff weekend, the No. 14 Wisconsin men’s hockey team (19-12-7, 13-8-7 WCHA) is hoping to stick to the plan and “just keep rolling” as they take on No. 8 Minnesota State (24-12-3, 16-11-1 WCHA) Thursday in the opening round of the WCHA Final Five at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
“It just kind of fits,” senior forward Ryan Little said of the slogan. “Since Christmas, we’ve been playing well, and if we haven’t played well we’ve found a way to win. It’s working, so I guess we’re going to keep it.”
According to Little, these types of mottos are a Mike Eaves staple. But for the Badgers, it is the necessary mindset to have as they head into a do-or-die situation Thursday. If they win, the Badgers keep advancing through the conference tournament and potentially on to the NCAA tournament. If they lose, the season is over.
“I think everyone knows what’s at stake,” senior defenseman John Ramage said. “But at the same time, nothing changes. We’re going to keep playing our game, and we’re confident in what we can do. I think having that confidence going into this week is going to help us a lot.”
Thursday will mark Wisconsin’s fifth meeting of the season with Minnesota State. The current record between the two teams sits at 2-2, with each visiting team sweeping the home team earlier this season.
The Mavericks marked the final two games of the Badgers’ opening 10-game skid in the teams’ first series — sweeping the Badgers at home 4-2 in both games on Nov. 23 and 24. Just under two months later, UW used two overtime, game-winning goals from Ramage to sweep MSU 4-3 and 2-1 on Jan. 11 and 12, respectively.
With so much experience between the two teams already through the 2012-13 season, there’s sure to be some tension — especially given the one-and-done scenario.
“They’re a hardworking team; we’re a hardworking team,” Little said. “Anytime I’ve ever played them in my career here, they’re always gritty and willing to do those things that kind of get under your skin. There’s definitely a little extra to this game.”
But Thursday afternoon will be the first time the teams face off on an NHL-sized rink, which the Badgers believe will benefit their style, especially as of late.
“Over the past couple of weeks here, we’ve had a shooter’s mentality,” Ramage said. “When you’re on a smaller ice, it’s easier to get pucks on the goalie and pucks on net just due to the size and how the bounces usually end up towards the net.”
While Wisconsin is confident in what it can bring to the ice, it still faces the WCHA’s goalie champion in freshman Stephon Williams, who averages 1.84 Goals Against Average and boasts a .929 save percentage.
“I could sit here and talk for quite a while about him,” Little said. “But he’s the goalie of the year; he’s obviously had a great year and he’s confident. I think a key for us is going to be getting on him and getting traffic so he doesn’t see the puck and scoring goals early. I think if we can do that he might lose a little confidence and that might help us.”
Thursday marks the first time since the 2009-10 season Wisconsin has made it to the WCHA Final Five. As a part of that team — which eventually finished runner-up in the National Championship — Ramage was the only one to have played in the conference tournament. For the vast majority of Eaves’ squad, it will be the first time they’ve played this deep into the postseason.
Despite that fact, Eaves isn’t worried his skaters will be awestruck by the stage. In fact, he’s confident they are well prepared for it.
“There’s just genuine excitement,” Eaves said. “Being on a big stage is what all athletes have dreamed about and in the summer time have trained for. So I think they’ll be ready to go. This is our 12th straight weekend, so we’ve been playing for awhile. If there’s an energy boost we get from being on this stage, that’s a welcomed thing at this time.”
Little — who redshirted the 2009-10 season — is excited to finally have the chance to play in the tournament and hopefully keep working his way through the postseason.
“I didn’t know if I’d get the opportunity,” Little said. “As soon as we won that game on Saturday, I was really excited but, at the same time, trying to stay focused and get the job done because it’s really all for naught if we don’t go in there and get a few wins.”
Despite knowing what’s on the line Thursday afternoon, the Badgers aren’t getting ahead of themselves. While the stakes are certainly higher for UW — since MSU’s current ranking has them locked into a NCAA tournament bid — Thursday isn’t an easy match-up by any means.
“It’s going to be a classic battle,” Eaves said. “It’s two wins each. This is kind of like the rubber match on a big stage. Both teams are playing for a lot, so it should be one heck of a game. It could be eight o’clock in the morning and it’d be one heck of a game.”