With only four games remaining, the University of Wisconsin Men’s hockey team’s (10-15-5, 6-9-5 Big Ten) 2018-19 regular season is nearing an end and preparation for the Big Ten postseason tournament is already underway.
The Badger’s season started out strong, going 8-7-3 overall and 4-3-3 against other Big Ten teams before their winter intersession.
Much of their strong start was due to offensive success, as the team scored three or more goals in nine of nineteen contests, and five or more goals in five of them.
Since that point, however, the team has struggled to gain ground in the standings and struggled to continue that offensive efficiency from the first half of the season.
After winter intermission, Wisconsin is 2-8-2 overall and 2-6-2 against other Big Ten opponents. This challenging stretch experienced by the team can be credited both to playing high-caliber Big Ten opponents and to struggles on both ends of the ice.
Since their break from Dec. 8 to Jan. 4, goalkeepers Jack Berry and Daniel Lebedeff have allowed four goals per game, significantly greater than their season average of 3.3, and the Badger offense has scored only 2.4 goals per game, an average that has dropped through the season.
As a result, after spending most of the season in striking distance of the conference lead, the Badgers now sit at seventh in the Big Ten standings with 25 points, 16 points behind conference leader Ohio State.
If the season ended today, the Badgers would play their opening round of the tournament at Minnesota, and would then travel to Ohio State if they were to overcome the Golden Gophers.
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The bad news is the Badgers are 2-6-0 against Minnesota — second-ranked in the conference — and nationally ranked No. 2 Ohio State this season.
But despite their current position, the Badgers still have a chance to rise in the standings and avoid some of the top-ranked Big Ten teams early in the tournament. With their two final series coming against other Big Ten opponents, Head Coach Tony Granato’s team has a chance to control their own destiny, and possibly rise into a home playoff game to begin the tournament.
One thing that Badger fans have come to know and love about Wisconsin athletics is, come post-season tournament time, rankings don’t seem to mean a lot. Wisconsin will have a fight and that’s all they need.
The first of the two final series for Wisconsin will have the Badgers to traveling to No. 17 Penn State. The Badgers went 1-0-1 earlier this season when the Nittany Lions visited the Kohl Center. Penn State is 7-7-1 since their first series with the Badgers.
To finish out the regular season, the Badgers will host Michigan on March 1 and 2, and look to finish off their regular season on a high note. The Badgers tied both of their previous games against the Wolverines. Michigan is 6-7-4 since playing the Badgers in late November.
Now, how would Wisconsin be able to rise in the standings and avoid playing Minnesota and Ohio State to start the tournament?
The first thing Wisconsin will need to do is win at least three of their remaining four games. With each win being worth three points in the conference standings, and all of their remaining four games against teams ahead of them in the standings, finishing with at least three wins is crucial.
Second, they would need Michigan, Notre Dame and Michigan State to struggle and drop a few games to their upcoming opponents in each team’s four remaining contests. The Badgers currently sit six places behind Notre Dame, five behind Michigan, four behind Penn State and two behind Michigan State.
Luckily for the Badgers, both Michigan and Michigan State still have two games remaining against Ohio State, a team who has dominated the conference, and has done everything in the Big Ten but clinched the No. 1 seed in the tournament.
If the Badgers are able to perform well against Michigan and Penn State during the next two weekends, along with the possibility that Notre Dame and Michigan State will struggle down the stretch, it’s plausible that the Badgers can jump into the No. 3 or No. 4 seed going into the postseason tournament.
Having the No. 3 or No. 4 seed would be incredibly different than going into the tournament in last place. A middle seed, such as three or four, could allow the Badgers to open the tournament at home, and avoid playing top-ranked teams until later in the tournament.
All games will be challenging for Wisconsin so the opportunity to avoid some of the top-ranked teams could allow the Badgers to advance farther into the tournament and build momentum for when they do have to face some tougher Big Ten teams.
While these scenarios require a lot of uncertainties, it is not out of the question for Wisconsin to avoid Minnesota and Ohio State to start the tournament. This would mean a lot for Granato’s team, as they are 6-9-5 in the Big Ten overall but 4-3-5 against other teams in the Big Ten besides Minnesota or Ohio State.
For all of this to happen, Granato will look upon team-leaders in goals scored — Sean Dhooghe, Will Johnson, Wyatt Kalynuk and Seamus Malone — to continue their goal-scoring ways and find the same fire that allowed them to light up the net in the first half of the season.
Wisconsin will also need goalies Lebedeff and Berry to block pucks as if they were a brick wall in front of the net.
This season, the Badgers rank 47th nationally in goals-allowed-per-game at 3.30 and rank 29th in goals per game at 2.87. For them to overcome the odds, rise in the standings and have a successful postseason tournament, they will need to play better on both sides of the puck.
The final stretch begins for Wisconsin when they visit Penn State on Friday at 5:30 p.m. CST and Saturday at 6 p.m. CST. Friday’s bout will be available on the Big Ten Network and both games will be available via radio broadcast.