The Badgers, who received a third seed in the Midwest Region, will face No. 2 seed Michigan (30-7-3) Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Mich., in the first round of the 16-team NCAA Tournament.
"Getting a third seed is obviously better than what we thought we were going to get," junior defenseman Tom Gilbert said. "The way we were picked, it doesn't matter who we're playing, we're just excited and looking forward to this Friday."
The Badgers (23-13-4), who snapped a seven-game win streak Feb. 5 with a loss to Minnesota, have gone 3-7-3 since then while facing some of the top competition in the country in Western Collegiate Hockey Association foes Minnesota, Denver and Colorado College, all of whom are No. 1 seeds in the tournament. Wisconsin suffered a scoring drought at a key time in the season, losing five of its last 12 games by one goal.
"The thing that we did this year is we put hay in the barn early because of our schedule," Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves said. "We knew that down the stretch was going to be tough. We played great teams down the stretch, we ran into the roadblock of not even being able to score, which would have helped us get better results than we had."
But Wisconsin has seen some success against Michigan this season. The Badgers defeated then-No. 1 Michigan 3-1 in the College Hockey Showcase Nov. 27 at the Kohl Center, after being humiliated by Michigan State 4-0 the night before. The Badgers remember both of those games all too well and will look to build on a similar situation next weekend.
"I remember being embarrassed the night before," junior forward Adam Burish said. "Obviously, playing Michigan State and playing poorly, we were embarrassed. And there was this feeling in the locker room that ‘we're not going to lose this game. This is a game that we need to win and we are going to win.' … Somehow we need to recreate that feeling, that desperate feeling in there, that this needs to get done and this is a do-or-die kind of game. That was that feeling we had in the dressing room. Somehow, we need to recreate that feeling."
"I remember us coming out and just playing fearlessly, coming out and going into situations where it was a 50-50 puck and going in there and not only making contact, but winning the battle," Eaves said. "We shot the puck, we took advantage of our scoring chances. I think the people that were in the building saw a terrific college hockey game."
After Thursday's 4-3 loss to the University of North Dakota in the WCHA Final Five play-in game, the Badgers fell as far as 15th in the PairWise Rankings, which imitate the criteria used by the NCAA for tournament bids and seeding. Mercyhurst, which the Badgers swept to open the season, won the Atlantic Hockey Association Saturday to receive an automatic bid. This, along with several other key wins and losses in conference tournaments throughout the nation, actually boosted Wisconsin to a tie with Maine for 12th in the Pairwise and a No. 3 seed in the tournament.
"Obviously, after Thursday's game, guys were pretty upset, guys were disappointed and it was out of control because we didn't play the way we would have liked to have played," Burish said. "We were talking and guys were questioning what was going to happen, ‘Where are we going to go? Are we going to get selected?' Then as the tournament went on, the right stuff happened for us."
Wisconsin will need to remember every lesson it learned throughout this tumultuous season in facing a Michigan team that just won the Central College Hockey Association tournament. The Wolverines will essentially have home-ice advantage, playing 130 miles away from Ann Arbor.
"I think it fuels the guys to play in front of a crowd that you know is going to be against you," senior goaltender Bernd Bruckler said. "You know you have to come out and prove to them that you're the better team on the ice… I think we're just going to take it as a fuel."