In the middle of a four-game losing skid, the Wisconsin men’s hockey faithful still have plenty to look forward to as the final stretch of the season approaches.
The Badgers (12-14-2, 7-13-2 WCHA) have dropped four straight games to conference foes despite outshooting their opponents 74-47 in their last two games and now find themselves second-to-last in the WCHA standings.
With the WCHA playoffs approaching and home ice seemingly out of reach, head coach Mike Eaves said his team isn’t ready to back down just yet.
“We have a choice now – we can roll over and play dead, but that’s not human nature,” Eaves said in his Monday press conference. “Human nature is to fight and to scrap. All we can do right now is get ready for Friday night.”
The road doesn’t get any easier for the Badgers. No. 10 Denver comes to the Kohl Center this weekend looking to extend its two-game winning streak, which was started by an impressive series sweep of the then-No. 2 Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Currently sitting in third place in the conference standings, Denver will surely be a difficult test for Wisconsin. The Pioneers bring a high-powered offense to Madison with the best power play conversion rate in the WCHA at 24 percent and rank third in the WCHA in scoring offense with 106 goals on the year.
“A lot of things you’d say you would want in a top-rated team, they have those qualities,” Eaves said of Denver. “They compete their fannies off.”
Eaves hopes the week off will help re-energize the Badgers after their longest losing streak of the season. UW dropped two games on the road to North Dakota and was then swept on its home ice by St. Cloud State last weekend.
Heading into the bye, Wisconsin suffered a painful 2-1 defeat in which the team fired off 42 shots but was unable to get past SCSU’s to take advantage.
“Usually when you have a week off they come in with a little more jump,” Eaves said. “We hope they use that jump to help us this weekend.”
Although the weekend series with Denver poses an array of challenges, the Badgers will likely be aided by the return of junior forward Derek Lee, who is probable for Friday’s contest after only playing in seven games this season due to injury.
With a roster dominated by young, inexperienced players, most Wisconsin hockey fans expected the 2011-12 campaign to be a rebuilding year for Eave’s squad. As such, the Badgers are in the bottom half of the WCHA in several categories including scoring offense and goals allowed.
Although the Badgers sit near the bottom of the WCHA with just six regular season games remaining, signs are still pointing up for the future. The team will lose just one player next season to graduation, that of Eric Springer, the team’s lone senior.
Springer, a native of Wrightstown, Wis., has four assists and a goal on the year but remains a leader in the locker room and will prove a tough loss off the ice for the Badgers.
“I think when you’re the only senior it’s difficult because there is a lot of responsibility there,” Eaves said. “He’s playing his best hockey now because he’s comfortable with his role and he understands what he needs to do to help this team.
“This team is in the middle of growth. Are we going to quit growing or continue to get better day by day? Just knowing these guys, I think that’s the path that we are going to follow.”
Many of the young Badgers currently on the squad will experience UW’s dying days in the WCHA after 43 years and the birth of the Big Ten hockey conference in the 2013-14.
The future institution recently voted to hold its conference tournament at neutral sites, rather than have teams themselves host games, a move with which Eaves felt OK.
“Well, I think if you look at the big picture, it’s always good to have games in your own barn and to play in front of your own crowd,” he said. “… There has been a real good success in neutral site with the WCHA Playoffs and such, that I think that the Big Ten came back around and looked at it again with all the things they were finding about getting home sites, and it looked like a real good alternative.
“I think there’s more upside to doing a neutral site.”