Not even a bump in the road ? say, a 2-1 overtime loss to Minnesota-Duluth ? can deter the University of Wisconsin men?s hockey team right now. Heck, not even a 10-car pileup would do the trick. No, the Badgers are far too focused. After all, they are in the final leg of the regular season, and there is much at stake. This weekend, just four points separate Wisconsin from its opponent, eighth-place Michigan Tech (10-12-4, 6-9-3 WCHA).
So in order to properly prepare for this crucial series, UW brought practice to the close quarters of the Shell.
The Huskies don?t have much room to roam at home. It?s that simple. And the Badgers (12-11-5, 8-9-3), not chancing anything this late in the season, decided it best to simulate playing on a small sheet of ice throughout the week so they?d be ready come Friday.
?Experience tells us that when we go to practice at the Shell that we are much better when it comes time to play,? UW head coach Mike Eaves said. ?My first year we didn?t have that opportunity when we went out to Boston College, and we were down 4-0 in the first 10 minutes, so the lesson was learned.?
Contrary to popular belief, senior forward Matt Ford actually enjoys smaller rinks. He believes the Badgers play better on them.
?I think we like playing on a smaller sheet of ice,? he said, referencing the Denver series in early January when Wisconsin scored seven goals the second night and controlled play for much of the weekend. ?A lot of us like making those quick decisions, those quick passes, and a lot of us like to play physical.?
?The smaller sheet just plays into our strengths.?
Another item the team honed in on during the week was erasing last Saturday?s heartbreaking loss to UMD in overtime from its memory. It worked.
?Until you mentioned it, I forgot all about losing last week,? sophomore forward Michael Davies said.
It also appears that the coaching staff and players erased playing Michigan Tech the first weekend of WCHA play ? a series they split ? from their minds as well. To them, it?s as if they are facing the Huskies for the first time because they?ve discovered their identity ? something that was lacking in early November.
?We?re playing at a different level now because we?ve had more repetitions in our system; we?re used to playing with one another,? Eaves said. ?So hopefully, we?ve jumped up in our ability to play more than they have.?
The Huskies will have a jump of their own with the recent return of starting goaltender Michael-Lee Teslak. The junior, who allows a trim 1.73 goals per game, missed several series with an injury and should provide a big boost.
But at this point, this late in the season, Wisconsin?s attitude toward its opponent is ?it doesn?t matter.? The team cares about how well it plays, not anyone else.
For the players? belief is that if they do the little things right ? play a full 60 minutes, make the extra pass, play through each line change, block shots ? then only positives can come out of each game.
?It?s not so much the other team anymore; it?s about us,? goaltender Shane Connelly said. ?We have to take care of what we can control and adapt to whatever they throw at us Friday night.?
Half a season of not knowing what he had in terms of team chemistry and consistency when determining his four lines are gone.
?It has been in the crock-pot and kind of cooked a little bit, and now we have a little bit better feel and taste of what we have,? Eaves said.
The first line of Ben Street, Ford and Davies ? the second line starts the game ? continues to skate and play at a high level. The three accounted for two Badger goals last weekend and a myriad more scoring chances.
?All three of us are playing well,? Ford said. ?We all have that jump in our game. ? We?re making plays and getting pucks on net; we?re doing the things we need to do to be successful.?
Wisconsin got the loss out of its head. It practiced on a small rink. As for the rest of what the Badgers are looking to accomplish this weekend ? including a sweep ? well, they have to wait until after the final buzzer sounds Saturday to properly evaluate.
?It?s going to be a battle. It?s going to be a war. But I think we?re ready for it,? Davies said.