Call it the Alaska-Anchorage syndrome, or maybe just a bad case of jetlag. Whatever it was, in the collective mind of the Badger men's hockey team, it is over and done with.
"I don't think a lot of guys are thinking about that," senior defenseman Andy Wozniewski said. "It's a totally new season now."
Wisconsin capped an undefeated month of February (5-0-1) with a sweep of the Seawolves at Anchorage Feb. 27-28. It was a series in which everything seemingly went right: despite making the extended trek to Alaska, the Badgers scored three goals each night and star goaltender Bernd Bruckler allowed just one goal total. It was a month to remember: sweeping No. 1 North Dakota Feb. 6-7, then taking three points from then-third-place St. Cloud State Feb. 20-21.
The Badgers returned home to host Minnesota-Duluth knowing that a sweep would propel them past the Bulldogs and into second place. However, Duluth and Wisconsin skated to a tie in game one and then the bottom fell out. The Badgers played miserably in a 4-1 loss to Duluth March 6, then lost a Western Collegiate Hockey Association first-round tournament series at home the following weekend, dropping two of three games to the same Alaska-Anchorage team they had dominated so recently.
So while the WCHA Final Five was taking place in St. Paul, Minn., Wisconsin (21-12-8, 14-7-7) bided its time, waiting for its expected berth to the NCAA tournament, which came, mercifully, last Sunday.
"Last week was a tough week," freshman defenseman Ryan Suter said. "Guys are really excited to get things going again."
The Badgers earned the 11th overall seed for the NCAA tournament and were given the third seed in the East Regional at Pepsi Arena in Albany, N.Y., where they will face two-seed Ohio State (26-15-0) at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
"I guess if we wouldn't have got this we'd be hanging our heads the past couple weekends and all summer," Suter said. "We didn't play very good the last two weekends of the season and hopefully now with the break we've thought about things and just recharged our batteries and are ready to get at it."
"Because of the what happened, the way the playoffs ended, the kids want this badly," head coach Mike Eaves said.
The want was missing in those first two weekends of March. Wisconsin had a hard time getting its legs back after the trip to Anchorage and looked flat throughout the Duluth series. As a result, the team tried to lighten the load in practice prior to the WCHA playoffs, a tactic that was reversed this week.
"We stepped up our intensity a little bit," freshman defenseman Jeff Likens said. "We've got to get ready for this week, for this weekend. The week before UAA we kind of settled down a little bit just trying to get our legs, but that didn't really work for us. That wasn't who we were. So we kept going with the practices now and we've got them back up to high intensity."
"We just have to get back to practicing hard, working hard," senior defenseman Dan Boeser said. "That's the reason why our team wins games is because of our hard work."
Getting up to speed
While Wisconsin was licking its wounds, Ohio State was busy winning the Central Collegiate Hockey Association tournament championship last weekend. The Buckeyes have won six consecutive games, five in the CCHA playoffs. The other two teams in the East Regional, Maine and Harvard, also won conference tournaments last weekend. If the Badgers win Friday they would advance to the Regional title game Saturday at 5 p.m.
Eaves said the biggest adjustment for Wisconsin after a weekend away will be getting up to game speed quickly, which is something he did not think the team could completely accomplish in practice this week. "When we go out into the first period of that game we are going to have to keep things simple, get the ball in play and slowly catch up to that game speed," he said.
Wisconsin has played the vast majority of its games on larger ice surfaces, including the sheet at the Kohl Center, which measure 200 feet by 97 feet. Pepsi Arena, though, has the surface area of a standard NHL rink (200x85). The Badgers have only played on rinks of that size eight times this season (6-1-1), most recently when they took three points at Denver Dec. 5-6.
In order to prepare for the smaller space, Wisconsin practiced at Capital Ice Arena in Middleton three times this week before departing for Albany Wednesday afternoon. It is a tactic the team also employed prior to its road games at Michigan and Michigan State in November and again prior to the Denver series.
"We talked about getting the puck to the net as much as possible," Eaves said. "When you come from a big sheet you do have more time because you have more space. Here, you take two steps off the boards, you're in the scoring area. So we have talked about that. Coach (Bill) Howard has (also) made that a part of the goalie practices."
"Playing on a smaller ice surface there is not much room out there so we need to start working on making the plays quicker, knowing what we are going to do before we get the puck, and this helps," Likens said.
The team also practiced at Capital Ice Arena last week and scrimmaged Friday. "Guys (were) opening up and hitting the boards because they are not used to the boards being closer," Eaves said.
An uncommon opponent
Wisconsin has only faced Ohio State eight times in its history, with every matchup occurring between 1965 and 1969. The Badgers won all eight by a combined score of 76-13.
Wisconsin and Ohio State did face eight common opponents this season. The Badgers were 6-3-2 in those games; the Buckeyes 11-8-0.
Haven't I seen you before?
Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves and Ohio State head coach John Markell faced off against each other in the 1978 NCAA Tournament third-place game. Markell's Bowling Green State team beat Wisconsin 4-3.
"Apparently we have," Eaves said of playing against Markell. "I wasn't aware of that."
Eaves, however, well remembers the tournament. The Badgers had won six consecutive games heading into the national semifinals and were the defending national champions.
"It was a tough weekend for us," Eaves said. "Going into that championship we had been playing very well in the playoffs and then we got two weeks off, we lost that edge, we went there, we were flat. It was disappointing from that way because I think most of the guys felt that we had been playing so well that we had a legitimate chance but when we played, we had lost that edge."
For the record, Markell had two assists in the consolation game, while Eaves tallied one.