A wall in Wisconsin's locker room is adorned with a pyramid that lays out the teams goals, one priority leading to the next. In the pyramid's parlance, the Badger men's hockey team is scaling a mountain, reaching one summit after another along the way.
The closer to the base of the pyramid, and the starting point of the journey, the broader the goal, the longer the commitment involved.
"We have set our goals every year and they will not change and the No. 1 goal for this program is to achieve a degree from UW," associate head coach Troy Ward said.
Further along the pyramid's path is finishing in the top five of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association standings, a goal many months in the making, which results in hosting a first-round conference playoff series. The Badgers succeeded in this goal, but were thwarted in the next: reaching the WCHA Final Five.
Fortunately for Wisconsin (21-12-8), the NCAA Tournament selection process takes a long view, so despite a less-than-savory end to the season with an 1-3-1 record in March and a first-round WCHA playoff exit at the hands of Alaska-Anchorage, the Badgers reached the next goal the pyramid sets out, reaching an NCAA Regional playoff. Wisconsin, the 11th overall seed for the NCAA tournament and the third seed in the East Regional, will face two-seed Ohio State (26-15-0) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Pepsi Arena in Albany, N.Y.
It is remarkable that Wisconsin achieved this goal, just one season after a wretched 13-23-4 campaign. Chalk it up to youthful exuberance perhaps, but the Badgers, a freshman and sophomore dominated squad, believed this was an attainable goal from the opening faceoff.
"Everybody knew that we could do it coming in," freshman defenseman Jeff Likens said. "We didn't have a great season last year but everybody knew that we definitely could with everybody coming in and everybody stepping up to the challenge."
"You know every year you've got to think for the best and just work hard and want to get to that goal," freshman defenseman Ryan Suter said. "You know you always set those little goals along the way and then you have that big goal at the end of the year."
The big goals are the two remaining on the pyramid: reach the Frozen Four, win the National Championship.
"(For) everybody on our team this was the only goal was to get there and to win it; the ultimate goal," Likens said.
These points of order may have always been on the wall, but reaching the NCAA tournament, with a chance of bigger and better things to come, went from a possibility to an expectation when Wisconsin put together a school record 15-game unbeaten streak earlier this season.
"Then we felt we were more capable," Ward said. "But I think this team and its strength is its been almost a daily expectation, not a yearly expectation."
"You don't really know when you are starting a season how far it's going to go," senior defenseman Dan Boeser said. "But I quickly got a sense of how good this team could be early in the season. The sky is the limit for this team, I've said that all along."
Experienced in other ways
Wisconsin has just two players—Boeser and senior wing Rene Bourque—who were members of the team the last time UW qualified for the NCAA tournament, three seasons ago. Ohio State, on the other hand, boasts 16 players returning from a team that played in the NCAA tournament last season.
The Badgers, though, can draw on tournament experiences from other levels of hockey. Likens, Suter and freshman center Jake Dowell, for instance, were part of Team USA's gold medal performance in the 2004 World Junior Championships.
"It was big that we got to be over there," Likens said. "For the other guys that haven't had the playing experience I don't think it's a big deal because everybody has been at the top level playing in the top tournaments all before."
"I think everyone in some form or other has been in something big," Suter said. "Everything is so much more intense. Everything is going to be harder. Every shot is going to be tougher to get. It just brings (you) together."
One familiar face
Of the teams in the East Regional this weekend, Wisconsin has only faced Maine, which takes on Harvard at 4 p.m. Friday. The Badgers would welcome a rematch.
"We played Maine our second game of the year and they gave it to us pretty good but we're a different team right now," Bourque said.
"I'm sure that they remember us," Likens said. "I'm sure that they remember they beat us 6-2. Hopefully they think about that and they are like, ‘OK, we can walk all over them.' Hopefully they are not prepared because we can definitely win."