With three Western Collegiate Hockey Association series left in the season, the Badger men's hockey team (11-6-5 WCHA, 17-9-6 overall) has this weekend off, and they do not mind it a bit. Coming off of three tough conference series in which they went 3-3-0, Wisconsin will use the weekend off to rest up for the home stretch.
"I think it was really good timing with our schedule and the tough three weeks we had. I think the guys were tired after this weekend and there were a few small injuries," senior Rene Bourque said.
The sweep of then top-ranked North Dakota last weekend was a surprise to many, but it was just what the doctor ordered for the Cardinal and White. Since their record-setting unbeaten streak the Badgers had hit a lull and, at 14th in the PairWise rankings, were potentially on the bubble for the NCAA tournament. The wins jumped them up to eighth, a far more comfortable position.
"Coming off a weekend like that you kind of want to keep things going, but it's still nice to have a week off after that tough stretch," senior Andy Wozniewski said.
The series sweep knocked North Dakota from the top spot in the country, a position it had held for 11 straight weeks.
"There's no doubt that right now we are on an emotional high after the weekend. It's coming down to the end so we're definitely going to play our best hockey," junior goalie Bernd Bruckler said.
The weekend also gave some Badger individuals a chance to gain conference and national recognition.
Forward Robbie Earl was named WCHA Rookie of the Week and Inside College Hockey's national Player of the Week after his performance. The rookie notched the Kohl Center's first hat trick Friday night, completing the weekend with four goals, which included both game-winning scores.
Bruckler looked outstanding between the pipes again. The netminder had 66 saves on 71 shots on the weekend. Of the five goals that he allowed, only three of them were at even strength against the nation's top-scoring team. For his efforts, Bruckler earned both the WCHA Co-Defensive Player of the Week and USCHO.com Defensive Player of the Week awards.
"He's been playing really well. Hopefully he'll continue on and carry us through the playoffs," Wozniewski said.
After the weekend, players commented on their expectations for the remainder of the season. Although confident, the Badgers made it known that they were going to keep things in perspective and just take things one series at a time.
As for this week, Wisconsin took it easy. The coaching staff did not hold formal practice, instead leaving the ice time up to the captains' discretion, resulting in an intrasquad two-on-two tournament. The week away from competition gives the bumps and bruises some time to heal and allows the players to rest up for the coming weeks.
The last three series include a home series with St. Cloud State, a trip to Alaska-Anchorage, and the season finale against Minnesota-Duluth at the Kohl Center. Riding on these series is home ice for the first round of the WCHA playoffs, seeding in the NCAA tournament, or, with a little outside help, even a chance at the WCHA regular season championship.
"The race is still tight. We still want to go out there and try to win every game," Bourque said. "Who knows? Maybe the teams ahead of us will slip a few games and we can get by them somehow."
Having two out of the last three series at home definitely bodes well for the team. Last weekend's showing (more than 13,000 Friday and a sellout Saturday) showed what the energy and volume of a home crowd can do for a team.
"I definitely think it's a huge advantage for us. The fans have been great all year here at the Kohl Center. Our seventh man for sure," Bruckler said.
Now to put the finishing touches on the season: prepare for the high-caliber opponents that stand in the way and get in position for the postseason tournaments. Standards have been set and expectations have been raised over the course of the season.
"We're no joke. I think we have a chance to go into every game and have a chance to win," Bruckler said.