Earning a day off Sunday by sweeping No. 11 Denver in the opening round last weekend, the UW men's hockey team had a legitimate chance to land a No. 3 seed in the WCHA Final Five — which would automatically send the Badgers to the semifinals.
But when top seed Minnesota and No. 2 St. Cloud State earned comeback wins in their respective third-round games, Wisconsin had to settle for the No. 5 seed, which means it'll have to go through Michigan Tech in the play-in game just to get to the semifinals.
So close, yet so far to such an easy road to the WCHA final that even the harshest of UW's critics would grant the Badgers a running chance.
But Wisconsin players aren't crying over spilled milk.
"We don't really think about it," forward Ross Carlson said. "They beat us in Michigan Tech; we're going to have to play them. We're going to have to come with our A-game every night now because it's playoff time."
The No. 20 Badgers (17-17-4) have their work cut out for them. In all likelihood, it's going to take three straight wins on three consecutive evenings to advance to the NCAA tournament, by virtue of a WCHA tournament championship.
"No matter what path we've got to take, we know that no matter where we play, we can't lose from here on out," forward Tom Gorowsky said. "So if we've got to play three games instead of two, that's fine."
Gorowsky and the Badgers should note that it would be an unprecedented feat for Wisconsin to do just that. No WCHA team, since the current Final Five format was adopted in 1993, has won the tournament with wins Thursday, Friday and Saturday. In fact, the play-in game winners have an unconvincing record of 3-11 in Friday's semifinal game.
For Wisconsin to defy that mark, should it get by Michigan Tech, the Badgers have to take out MacNaughton Cup champs and No. 2 seed Minnesota Friday night.
With No. 3-ranked St. Cloud State and defending Broadmoor Cup holders North Dakota also in the fray, WCHA Commissioner Bruce McLeod called this one of the toughest fields in Final Five history, and the participating head coaches agreed during Tuesday's annual Final Five teleconference.
That said, history suggests No. 18 Michigan Tech (18-16-5) actually could prove to be the toughest matchup for Wisconsin, and the road could get even easier from there. The Huskies won the only two matchups between the two squads this season, 2-0 and 4-2, in Houghton, Mich. That head-to-head mark gave Tech the higher seed over Wisconsin, when the two teams completed conference play with 27 points apiece.
"We were really fortunate that we were tied, because we didn't have to play in Madison," Huskies coach Jamie Russell said Tuesday. "I believe the head-to-head [tiebreaker] shouldn't count if you're not playing four games during the season. That was an advantage for us."
The Badgers blame only themselves for losing out on the higher seed.
"We didn't perform as we needed to during the regular season; we're lucky to make it to the Final Five," Gorowsky said.
The top three seeds, already in the semifinals, shouldn't lick their chops if they draw Wisconsin at all during the season. Minnesota did drop one decision back on Jan. 12, 2-1; moreover, the Gophers have won none of their four games in the Final Five in the last two seasons.
And if the Badgers advance to Saturday's final, they have a combined record of 4-1-1 against prospective opponents St. Cloud State and North Dakota.
But UW head coach Mike Eaves, as usual, isn't letting his team look ahead to its border battle rival or any other team that doesn't have the words Michigan Tech on its sweaters.
"If we're taking a look at a ladder, before we get to the fourth rung, we've got to climb rung one and two and three to get to four," Eaves said. "We're totally focused on Thursday now and what Michigan Tech brings to the table."
Both Eaves and Russell were in agreement that Thursday's game will feature a pair of big, powerful teams that don't give up a lot of goals.
"They're very similar to us," Eaves said. "If we were to go to our team and say who are our opponents, and we described them, we would be describing ourselves in many ways."
"We're not going to set any scoring records, but we've got great goaltending, play team defense, and we're going to play tough," Russell added. "Wisconsin [is] a team we're very similar to; they're a big team, a physical team, and they've got a great goaltender."
Wisconsin (.197 GAA) and Michigan Tech (2.10) rank first and second in the conference in goals against. With UW's Brian Elliott going against a tandem of Michael-Lee Teslak and Rob Nolan, the Badgers hope their hot goaltender gives them the edge.
"When you've got a goalie that can win playoff games, you have a good goalie in the playoffs, everybody stands a chance," forward Aaron Bendickson said. "So Brian's key."
Elliott, along with his fellow seniors, says they're revved up knowing their next loss will be their last in a Badger uniform.
"We don't want to play golf yet," captain Andrew Joudrey said. "Really, we talked about it, it's too early to not be playing hockey anymore."