Men's hockey: Badgers hope to get on track

Wisconsin's stretch run has been a disappointment but another opportunity has arrived

It is that time of the season, the time the No. 13 University of Wisconsin men's hockey team has been waiting for all year — the NCAA Tournament. There are no more second chances: winners advance, losers hang up their skates until autumn. That this is where the Badgers have wanted to be since October is obvious. The question is now that they are here, are they ready?

The 2004-05 campaign is no doubt a successful one for head coach Mike Eaves and his players, but without significant improvement in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, it is a season that will likely be remembered as the one that saw the Badgers garner the national spotlight, but fail to prove they belong with the elite of college hockey.

The last month of the regular season was the first strike against Wisconsin's national title aspirations. Going against the top half of the loaded Western Collegiate Hockey Association, the cardinal and white were only able to pickup two wins in 10 games, ruining their chance to prove they could hang with anyone week-in and week-out.

Strike two was the WCHA playoffs. After barely edging out underdogs Alaska-Anchorage in three games, the Badgers (23-13-4) were dispatched in the Final Five by a young North Dakota side, spoiling their hopes at gaining postseason momentum.

Now Wisconsin heads to Grand Rapids, Mich., in a last-ditch attempt to shed the underachiever label it has branded itself with during its recent skid. Up first are the No. 5 Michigan Wolverines. Strike three, and the Badgers are out.

Whereas the Badgers rue their lack of momentum, their first-round opponent has enough to spare. Michigan (30-7-3) skates into the second season on an 11-game winning streak, the longest in the nation, and has only lost once in its last 16 outings.

Experience? The Ann Arbor unit traditionally does not lack any of that either. The Central Collegiate Hockey Association regular season and playoff champions are entering the NCAA Playoffs for a record setting 15th year in a row and have appeared in nine Frozen Fours in that span.

Head coach Red Berenson, who has collected two national championships in his 21 years with the team, has relied this year on a deep, experienced and star heavy offense. Led by Hobey Baker candidate sophomore T.J. Hensick and junior Jeff Tambellini, whose 52 points each tie them for sixth in the nation, the Michigan attack has dominated even the stingiest of defenses and provided the foundation for the team's push at a championship trifecta. Rounding out the unit are Eric Nystrom and Milan Gajic, seniors whose résumés already boast two third place finishes in the NCAA Tournament.

Though the Wolverine defense has not been spectacular, Wisconsin will no doubt be concerned with the goalie, junior Alvaro Montoya. Widely regarded as the best amateur American netminder today, as evidenced by his starting spot for the U.S. in the World Championships, Montoya is no stranger to high-pressure playoff hockey. The Badgers' top guns, freshman Joe Pavelski and sophomore Robbie Earl, will need to be on target if the Badgers are to have any success in their playoff opener.

Though the on-paper matchups do not favor the Badgers this weekend, history shows a different story. It was Wisconsin who unseated the Wolverines from their No. 1 ranking earlier this year at the College Hockey Showcase with a 3-1 win. On that night the Badgers, coming off a demoralizing 4-0 loss to Michigan St., scored on the power play, shorthanded and outshot their opponent in what might have been their biggest win of the year. For Michigan, the defeat gave them their only back-to-back losses of the season.

Should Wisconsin silence the naysayers and defeat Michigan, they will advance to the second leg for a showdown with either No. 3 Colorado College or No. 14 Colgate. Though the Tigers are a No. 1 seed in the tournament and are heavily favored to progress to the Frozen Four from this quartet, UW had a successful weekend versus the Tigers in Colorado Springs last month.

Some might say that with their being underestimated and disregarded as contenders, the pressure is off and the Badgers have nothing to lose. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As they saw the McNaughton Cup slip from their grasp over the course of several weeks and as they made an early exit from the WCHA Playoffs once again, the Badgers' only consolation was that they would be able to make amends for all this with a national championship trophy. Now they face the unenviable position of not only returning to Madison empty handed for the second year in a row, but having failed to meet their own expectations.

When the puck drops versus Michigan, the pressure will be indeed be on, and Wisconsin will be going for broke.

The Badgers will play the Wolverines in Grand Rapids Friday at 7:30 p.m., and, should they advance, will meet either CC or Colgate at 4:00 p.m. Saturday.

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