Men's hockey: UW anxious for Final opportunity

Badgers will look to bolster their case for the NCAA Tournament at this weekend's Final Five

MADISON — Heading into the month of February the University of Wisconsin men's hockey team faced the toughest slate in the country: Minnesota, Denver, Colorado College and North Dakota — eight straight games of intense hockey against four of the nation's premier units. The result: a deflating 2-4-2 run that eliminated the Badgers from McNaughton Cup contention.

Now No. 11 Wisconsin (23-12-4) heads to Minneapolis for the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Five, and guess who its competition will be? If playing the Gophers, Pioneers, Tigers and Sioux over a 23-day period was daunting, facing off with as many as three of these squads in a single weekend seems a Herculean task, beginning with a 7:37 p.m. faceoff with North Dakota in the quarterfinal matchup Thursday.

"It's one of those intermediate goals on the way to the big goal, and that's to get to the Big Dance and win it," UW head coach Mike Eaves said, discussing winning the Broadmoor Cup in the Final Five. "It's a stop along the way and if we can get that stop done that would be terrific."

The Badgers ended their season on a relatively poor note, showing a lack of consistency and winning only twice in their last 10 regular season games. The first round of the playoffs yielded only more stress, with Wisconsin edging out a determined Alaska-Anchorage squad by the skin of their teeth.

On top of this, the Badgers were not even granted a night of celebration after sealing their first Final Five trip in three years before it was revealed to them that, as a result of their win against the Seawolves, they had actually lost ground in the Pairwise standings. In a bizarre twist of events, the win dropped UAA from national playoff contention, in effect lowering the Badgers' strength of schedule and dealing a blow to their NCAA postseason hopes.

Now, there is lots of pressure, lots on the line and a lot of … optimism?

"We believe in what we can do and that any given night we can play with any team in the county," UW forward Nick Licari said. "We're pretty satisfied."

Though their late season results were less than satisfactory, the Badgers are determined to reestablish themselves as the team that, for much of the seasons, was among the nation's Top 5.

Given their status as an NCAA Tournament bubble team, Wisconsin knows the Final Five could be do-or-die, augmenting their already strong desire to best their season-long conference rivals in the nation's toughest playoff.

"It's another step in our pedestal to go up," Badger forward Robbie Earl said. "Our goal was to win the league but we didn't do that, so next step is Final Five and we'll see what happens there. Then national championship, but you have to take it one step at a time."

The X factor for Wisconsin will be the play of its offense. With goaltender Bernd Bruckler having already recovered from a dismal first game of the WCHA playoffs last Friday, the consistently sturdy defense will be running on all cylinders and braced for any of the highly-regarded offenses it will face, putting the focus on the forwards.

Though dominant in the first half of the year, averaging over four goals per game, the UW offense has faltered lately and struggled to bury teams early and ease the pressure on the blue-liners. This has been especially noticeable on the power play, where in the last month Wisconsin has converted on a meager 13 percent of its chances.

Though freshman Joe Pavelski and sophomore Earl (six and four points, respectively, in the playoffs so far) have contributed steadily, the Badgers will need a broader effort that includes contributions from scorers such as Ryan MacMurchy, Ross Carlson and Jake Dowell if they are to take advantage of their full potential.

"We've been struggling to score goals and I think once we start doing that we're going to start winning a lot of games consistently," Licari said. "Time is running down, but hopefully we can get something going Thursday night."

What: Fourth-seeded Wisconsin (23-12-4 overall) versus fifth-seeded North Dakota (20-13-5) in WCHA Final Five quarterfinal.
When: Thursday, March 17 at 7:37 p.m.
Where: Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.
Broadcasts: Fox Sports Net North will televise all WCHA Final Five games live. WIBA-AM 1310 will provide a live radio broadcast of UW games.
Series notes: UW leads the all-time series 74-53-10… this season the Badgers swept a pair from North Dakota at the Kohl Center, but went 0-1-1 in Grand Forks, N.D.

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