Men's hockey: Frozen redemption

Rough five weeks put Badgers on the skids; the perpetrators now decorate the Frozen Four

The University of Wisconsin men's hockey team was 19-6-1 following a pair of shutouts of Notre Dame in late January. The Badgers were riding a six-game winning streak and they looked poised to make a run at the MacNaughton Cup and were even considered legitimate contenders for the national championship. So what happened?

The Badgers won their next game at home against Minnesota to reach the 20-win mark, but would win just three of their last 14 games (3-8-3) to close out the season.

From the day the schedule was announced, the last five Western Collegiate Hockey Association series of the season were going to be the Badgers' true test. When the stretch run arrived, it held true to form, including the five teams in the top six in the standings not named Wisconsin.

So when the calendar turned to February, the Badgers talked about going from a good team to a great team. Things did not quite work out their way. They managed to split home series with Minnesota and Colorado College, but could salvage just one point in road series with Denver, North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth.

Much like last Friday's season-ending 4-1 loss to Michigan in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the month of February put the Badgers' big-game weaknesses on center stage.

"This is a confident group of guys that we have. It's not a group of guys that we play nine months and then hang our heads," Badger captain Adam Burish said. "It's just a youthful group of guys that sometimes [did not] take charge. Down the stretch, if you aren't going to take charge, you're going to get beat."

Going 2-5-3 in February and the first weekend of March was not exactly going from good to great. In fact, to most it probably looked as if the Badgers had completely fallen apart.

The stretch included a 2-4-2 record against Minnesota, Colorado College, North Dakota and Denver. Coincidentally, those four teams make up this year's NCAA Frozen Four, the first time in history that all four teams have come from a single conference.

League co-champions Denver and Colorado College, co-third-place finisher Minnesota and fifth-place North Dakota were not only among the top teams in the WCHA this season, they have proven to be the top teams in the nation.

If there were any lingering doubts as to whether the WCHA was the premiere hockey conference in the country, they have all been answered. Suddenly, finishing tied for third in the WCHA with just two contributing seniors (goaltender Bernd Bruckler and forward John Funk) does not seem so discouraging.

"For me, personally, my career is done, so I don't know if I can dwell on that a lot right now," senior goalie Bernd Bruckler said of the Badgers' late-season struggles. "But also, everybody has to take a look at how young this team is and the lessons this team has learned. I think they're going to come back really strong and be a force next year."

The Badgers beat all four national semifinalists at least once this season. Now they just have to find a way to beat those teams both early in the season and late in the year. The hope of going from good to great this season may not have been realized, but with the experience gained, going from a good team at the end of this season to a great team throughout next year very well could be a reality.

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