Men's hockey: a learning season

Badgers turned fading expectations into lofty goals with climb through the middle of the season

When the University of Wisconsin men's hockey season ended with a 4-1 loss to Michigan in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last Friday, the message was clear that the team was not about to hang its head. After all, this year's Badgers were a young group, and if you really want to judge whether the season was as disappointing as it might have seemed down the stretch, you have to sift through the ups and downs of the 2004-05 season.

To determine the success of the season, take a look back at the beginning. As the season opened, Ryan Suter's departure from the defensemen's corps still loomed large and it was unclear whether the group of youngsters would rise to the occasion.

After starting the year 5-3-0, including a sweep at the hands of Minnesota, the questions remained vivid. But then things really started looking up.

The Badgers would win 15 of their next 19 games, becoming a staple in the top five of the national rankings and even holding the top spot for one week.

Through the middle part of the season, the Badgers had exceeded all expectations. They had swept North Dakota and Minnesota Duluth (remember the Bulldogs were picked to win the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, so this sweep looked good at the time). They had already reached the 20-win mark for the second season in a row.

But Duluth never really got things turned around and North Dakota started the year on a tough stretch, and now those wins do not seem so grand. Furthermore, the questions that everyone had to begin the season are the same concerns that came back to haunt the Badgers late in the year.

UW's inexperience was exposed time and time again as the Badgers struggled to a 2-5-3 mark over the final five weeks of the regular season, including an 0-3-2 performance in their last five games.

The losses included a plethora of one-goal games as the team struggled to score, and their inability to bail out senior goalie Bernd Bruckler hurt his confidence to the point where he was pulled in a WCHA playoff game against Alaska-Anchorage.

So, even though the Badgers advanced one less game into the postseason this season compared to last year, is this season considered unsuccessful? The Badgers do not believe that.

"We are a younger team. But two, we had more success late in the season last year. That kind of obviously must have played in some guys' minds," Bruckler said. "There's no doubt in my mind that we had all the tools to get it done."

They had the tools, but they did not have the experience. When it comes down to it, the Badgers met expectations — nothing more, nothing less — when you look at the overall picture.

The great middle of the season may have raised the expectations along the way, to the point that it looked like a complete meltdown over the final weeks. But if you look at expectations at the beginning of the year, and then where the Badgers finished, it is hard to hang your head.

The message was clear right after the Badgers' season ended. They would have liked to have done better, but they were just too young. The fans and media will have higher expectations for this team next year, but even more importantly, you can feel that the team itself already has higher expectations.

"We've learned a lot of lessons. We're going to come back as an older team next year. The freshmen that have played are going to come back next year," junior captain Adam Burish said. "These freshmen were thrown into the fire. They've played in the NCAA tournament, they have that experience. They've got the Final Five experience. Those are some things we can build off for next year."

Excluding a couple of recruits that may come in and play right away for UW next year, every contributor will have playoff experience, which is something that this team lacked. That was on display through the Badgers' struggles in the WCHA playoffs, and against Michigan when the Wolverines dressed 10 more seniors than the Badgers.

Even sophomore Brian Elliott, who will be asked to step up big to try and fill Bruckler's skates full-time next year, got experience against Anchorage in the WCHA playoffs.

"There's a moment in an athlete's life when you can say all the right things, but an athlete has to experience it," Eaves said. "And being as young as we are, you have to go through that. When you've been through the war a couple times, you know how to go out and dictate. Until they take that knowledge and apply it, it's not part of who they are."

The leadership will be even stronger next year. Burish and assistant captain Tom Gilbert will both be back and ready to lead this team to more success.

"I'm learning a lot being a captain here," Burish said. "Different situations, I've handled different ways. This is another lesson I've learned today, and a lesson I'll throw in my back pocket and come next year I'll take these lessons and I'll build off them."

The Badgers had a good season this year. They finished the year 23-14-4 and tied for third place in the WCHA regular season, in addition to reaching the NCAA Tournament.

But much like they want to go from a good to a great team, they will have to go from a good season this year to a great season next year.

"Anybody who's been in a dressing room after a season when some guys have played their last game of their careers, that's a pretty powerful feeling," Burish said. "For us juniors, it kind of sets in that we have one more kick at this thing."

Barring major setback during the offseason, Wisconsin will be expected to be at the Frozen Four next year. Anything less would be a disappointment not only to their fans, but to the Badgers themselves.

"They are going to be back in this position again, to play for the national championship again because there's a lot of talent in that room," Bruckler said. "We do have a lot of young guys and it was their first year in college and it was an invaluable experience game for them. I just wish I had a little bit more time left as well because it's a special group of guys."

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