This is the third year running Wisconsin has been a player on the national stage. Now, with a veteran-laden squad laced with depth and talent, there is reason to feel the puck will stop at the Frozen Four in Milwaukee's Bradley Center.
The stage is set. Wisconsin will be the host school for the national semifinals and championship game April 6-8. And with a strong regular season, the Badgers would be earmarked for the NCAA Midwest Regional in Green Bay.
"It's in the back of everybody's mind," defenseman Jeff Likens said. "Everybody knows that the Frozen Four is in Milwaukee… but we've got to take one game at a time, one series at a time."
The journey begins tonight at 7 p.m., when UW hosts St. Lawrence in the first game of a season-opening weekend series at the Kohl Center.
The Badgers set their sights on championships — the Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular season and playoff titles, in addition the NCAA crown — the past two seasons as well. In 2003 UW lost in overtime in a national quarterfinal. Last season the Badgers were ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation before a tough late-season stretch and a first-round NCAA loss.
Those were young teams, however. This season Wisconsin has as many players returning as anyone in the nation and yet another influx of highly touted freshmen. As a result, the Badgers were picked second in the WCHA preseason coaches' poll, and are No. 10 in the initial USCHO.com poll.
"The goal never changes," head coach Mike Eaves said. "I think realistically we take a look at what we have. We're as close to having what we need. It'll be a matter of how this team comes together and plays as a team that will get us to that next level…
"I make the analogy between a golf game in that when you're trying to get from a four or five handicap down to a scratch, it's very difficult. It's all about your short game, and we're in that short-game process now of fine-tuning our game so that we can get to where we want to be."
UW's top 15 scorers are back from the 2004-05 team that finished tied for third in the WCHA. Nearly all of the team's contributing forwards and blue-liners return.
The headliners are center Joe Pavelski, who as a freshman last season led the team in scoring (45 points) and assists (29), and junior winger Robbie Earl, who led the team in goals (20) and was second with 44 points. The Badgers boast 10 more players — seven forwards and three defenseman — who notched at least 10 points last season.
"You'll go around town and you'll see people saying, ‘Hey, we got our Frozen Four tickets,'" said captain Adam Burish, who plays right wing on a line with Pavelski and Earl. "There is that added pressure. I think guys accept that pressure and believe that we have the ability to get to that Frozen Four and ultimately get to that national championship game."
On paper, the one question mark is in net, where UW must replace one its all-time greats, Bernd Bruckler.
The Badgers, however, have a great deal of confidence in junior Brian Elliott, the new No.1 goalie.
"That's the question I know coming into this season everybody's been asking is what's up with the goaltender?" Burish said. "Where's Bernd Bruckler? I don't see him in the net anymore…
"People are going to be unbelievably surprised with this kid. He's unbelievably talented. He has an unbelievable work ethic and he's going to do special things."
Elliott suffered a stress fracture in his foot in the offseason and spent the past month rehabbing, but is healthy now and working into shape. He is expected to start at least one night against St. Lawrence.
"All the guys are eager," Elliott said. "We're in there just itching to get out there and play a game against somebody else instead of our own teammates."
Elliott's primary backup will be true freshman Shane Connelly.
The goaltenders can take solace in what should be a formidable defense corps led by senior Tom Gilbert, sophomore Kyle Klubertanz and junior Jeff Likens. Gilbert played at an All-American level the second half of last season and the trio combined for 52 points.
"We all feel pretty comfortable from defense out," Elliott said. "That's how you play your whole season is from the goalie to the forwards, and everybody has to be good from there."
Adding to the excitement is a talented trio of freshman forwards. The Chicago Blackhawks selected Madison native Jack Skille with the No. 7 overall pick in this summer's NHL Draft, and Tom Gorowsky and Ben Street also come to UW with glimmering goal-scoring reputations.
"The last two years have been building to where we are right now," Likens said. "And this year is where we have to make the jump."