The last time the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team was at the top of the conference, Lebron James was taking his talents to South Beach, Tim Tebow was a Bronco and the Badgers’ star-studded sophomore class was in middle school.

Six years later, the Badgers are back and better than ever.

After coming off two of the program’s toughest seasons with 12 combined wins, the Badgers wanted to spark a rebirth by hiring a brand new coaching staff, including head coach Tony Granato.

“Looking back on it and seeing four wins and eight wins the last two years, sometimes when things go bad it’s hard to get out, and they were better players than four and eight wins because they’ve proven that this year,” Granato said.

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The Badgers have gotten off to one of their hottest conference starts in years with a record of 6-2-0 and a share of the top spot in the Big Ten with No. 6 Penn State University.

Aside from leading the conference, No. 18 Wisconsin has earned its first top 20 ranking since 2014, when they were seeded No. 18 at the start of the year.

The last two weekends have been the key contributors to solidifying the team’s elite capability, with wins over the No. 7 Minnesota Gophers and a sweep over the then-No. 8 Ohio State Buckeyes.

“These last three wins show that we’re right there,” senior Corbin McGuire said. “We’re totally capable of beating anybody on any night.”

This rejuvenated Wisconsin team has really seemed to hit their stride since starting the season with a nonconference record of 7-6-1, and they have not looked back.

“Honestly, I think we’re playing a full 60 [minutes] and just believing in ourselves,” junior Cameron Hughes said. “I don’t think we’ve really changed anything. We’re just starting to execute the game plans better. We’ve been growing since the beginning of the year on an upwards trend, and it’s finally starting to pay off.”

The Badgers finished the month of January boasting a 5-1-0 record, propelling them forward as a serious conference and national contender. The difference in play is tough to directly pinpoint, but the perspective of the team is only on the up-and-up.

Ben Pierce/The Badger Herald

“The big word I always use is confidence,” McGuire said. “I mean, you look at the guys in the room and they’re the same guys. We just have a level of confidence that we know we’re a good hockey team. We know we’re good hockey players, and we go out on the weekends, we make plays, connect dots and get results.”

A great example of this confidence came in the overtime nail biter over Ohio State, where Wisconsin gave up two Buckeye goals in the final minutes of the third to send it to overtime but rallied to end it in extra minutes.

“I think they just feel really good about themselves and more importantly really good about their teammates,” Granato said. “You win with each other, and I think as big games are on the line, they’re looking down the bench and they’re saying, ‘We got this boys.’”

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The past two weekends have been an eventful and long-awaited time for Wisconsin hockey as they’ve leaped into contention for a tournament bid.

“The players are believing that what they’ve done all year to get to this point they’ve earned, they’ve earned this position, and all this does is gives us a chance, and that’s what you want,” Granato said.

Granato and the rest of the newly appointed coaches have seemingly proven to be a huge factor in taking this team from 12 wins in two seasons to a top 20 ranking and share of the No. 1 spot in the Big Ten. Granato, however, attributes much of the team’s success to the players.

Ben Pierce/The Badger Herald

“I think they’ve accepted the challenge that we’ve put on them about being part of something special,” Granato said. “I think they realize when they came to the University of Wisconsin they didn’t come here to have two years like they’ve had.”

Older players like McGuire and Hughes have acknowledged the impact Granato and the rest of the coaches have had on their success, and they are ready to be on the winning side of things.

“I think as a group we’ve put those years to the past and maybe had a chip on our shoulders a little bit, but for us to get a fresh start with the new coaches, new ideas and stuff has been a lot of fun,” Hughes said.

No one could be happier with the accelerated progress this team has made, but they have made it clear that they will not settle until they are holding a National Championship trophy.

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“There are 26 guys in there that are competitive people, and I don’t think we’re ever going to be satisfied or ever should be, so I think it’s pretty easy to stay hungry and stay motivated,” Hughes said.

The Badgers will need every ounce of motivation they can muster as they head into the final stretch of the season. Eight of Wisconsin’s 12 remaining games feature top 20 teams, including No. 11 Ohio State, No. 7 Minnesota and two series with co-Big Ten leader and No. 6 ranked Penn State.

The final leg of the season may prove to be the Badger’s biggest test of the year, but there is no doubt this revived Wisconsin team is ready for anything headed their way.