For the first time since 2006, the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team (17-15-4, 14-11-3 WCHA) has home ice for the first round of the WCHA playoffs. At the Kohl Center this weekend, the No. 3 seeded Badgers will host the No. 8 Minnesota State Mavericks (15-15-6, 11-13-4 WCHA) in a best-of-three series.
After securing home ice for the playoffs Friday, the Badgers closed out the regular season with a 4-1 victory over No. 6 North Dakota (22-12-4, 17-7-4 WCHA). The win marked only the second time under head coach Mike Eaves that the Badgers closed out the regular season with a win, with the 2005-06 season being the first. Also, Saturday’s win made this season the fourth in seven years under Eaves the program has finished in at least third place during the regular season.
“I think that anybody would say it was huge from the standpoint that going into the playoffs, it is the way you want to play,” Eaves said at his press conference Monday. “I think playing a quality team like that helps you set yourself up for the playoffs, as we said after Saturday night’s game. So, all things point in a good direction now, and we have to carry through with that this week as we practice and get ready for the first round.”
Facing a familiar foe
Having last played the Mavericks Feb. 27 and 28, the Badgers have a sense of what to expect this weekend. Wisconsin has swept their season series with Minnesota State four different times, but this year Minnesota State was just one of two schools to win the season series against the Badgers, with No. 5 Denver being the other.
Those most recent matches at the end of February saw the Mavericks take three of four points in a 4-3 win and 3-3 tie over the Badgers in Mankato, Minn. Still, the team is looking forward to facing familiar opposition this weekend.
“The last time we played there, we felt we did a lot of good things,” Eaves said. “We came out of that series thinking that we didn’t get a timely save or a timely goal, so if you ask what has changed, well, we’ve got that monkey off our back here this past Saturday night, so that’s a good thing.”
Looking ahead to the NCAA Tournament
If the Badgers are able to win two of the three games against the Mavericks this weekend, it would be the program’s 12th trip in 17 tries to the WCHA Final Five. This year, the WCHA Final Five is being held in St. Paul, Minn. from March 19-21, a week before NCAA Regionals are set to begin. With the winner of the WCHA Tournament receiving an automatic bid to the NCAA Regionals, the significance of this weekend’s games is clearly not lost. Eaves’ team, however, is not placing any extra pressure on themselves.
“With all the computations that you could go about doing right now, our thing is just to win,” Eaves said. “We have to win. And I think if we do our part in that, then we’ll let the chips fall where they are, but we’re not going to talk about that a whole heck of a lot. I think if we are successful this weekend and get into the WCHA Final Five, then our task remains the same, let’s win, and that gives us the best chance of getting seeded like we want to.”