To be the best—holding the nation's No. 1 ranking since late November—the University of Wisconsin men's hockey team had scored victories over some of the best, such as Colorado College, Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota.
Prior to Friday night at the Kohl Center, the Badgers' only loss in the past 21 games came Dec. 9, a 4-2 decision to Michigan Tech. That loss was quickly avenged the following night with a 7-0 drubbing. The Huskies are trying their best to avoid finishing in last place in the WCHA and that December letdown can be classified as a fluke of sorts.
The Badgers 1-0 loss to No. 19 Denver Friday night, however, was a different sort of animal. After all, the past two seasons have concluded with the Pioneers perched atop the very pedestal Wisconsin has its eyes dead set on: the national championship.
The Badgers had plenty of opportunities to score in their loss to the Pioneers—their first time being shutout all season and the first time that has occurred at the Kohl Center since Nov. 26, 2004. A couple of unlikely saves by Denver netminder Glenn Fisher kept Wisconsin scoreless, including a well-placed raised leg that stopped a Ross Carlson shot as Fisher lay with his back on the ice.
The game's lone goal did not come on the prettiest move of the night but neither was it a fluke. A timely pass from behind the net by J.D. Corbin put the puck right where Geoff Paukovich needed it to be to beat a surprised Shane Connelly.
Between the inspired play of Fisher, who shares equal time in net with Peter Mannino, and Paukovich's first goal of the season, Denver did not need star power to beat the Badgers and move to 8-1-2 all-time in the Kohl Center. Rather, as champions grow accustomed to doing, the Pioneers played as a team to take the lead and then simply made sure they would do nothing to beat themselves.
"They didn't give up a lot," UW coach Mike Eaves said. "Once they got that lead, they lined up four guys up along the blue line. They forced us to make chips and have to go work to get it back."
Though it has been an up-and-down road in defending their title, the Pioneers (13-10-2 overall, 10-5-2 WCHA) still sit tied for second in the WCHA and believe they are as good as anybody. Paukovich said after the game that people should expect to see Friday's type of play for the rest of the season.
"They're a good team — two-time defending national champions and they showed up for a big game," said sophomore center Joe Pavelski. "We came out flat. They got the first goal and they didn't give us anything from there."
That the Badger offensive punch showed a glimpse of frailty following a 9-1 drumming of Colorado College last Saturday should not be cause for alarm. Teams go through games where they cannot seem to find the back of the net.
But at the same time, nobody is about to make any excuses for shots hitting the post or for getting surprised by a timely kick-save.
"Unlucky isn't the word," Carlson said. "You've got to work for what you want. You've got to go out there and grab it and take it."
As a positive, backup goaltender Shane Connelly was solid in his first non-exhibition start of his young career, replacing the injured Hobey Baker candidate, Brian Elliott. The Badgers will need Connelly to remain sharp while Elliott nurses his injury over the next 3-4 weeks. That he seemed to grow comfortable as the game progressed is good news for the Badgers despite the loss.
Though the talk leading up to the game was rallying around Connelly, Wisconsin now finds itself in a position where the offense needs to respond on Saturday. The rematch with Denver is not necessarily a "must-win", but it certainly would help with fourth-ranked Minnesota coming to town next weekend and UW's lead in the WCHA down to six points.
Moreover, a victory would likely carry a certain sense of accomplishment, coming over a team that has in the past two years achieved the pinnacle the Badgers hope to reach.
"We talked about that," Eaves said. "They've got guys that have been on a team of back-to-back national champions. They can carry the torch and they teach the young kids what to do. They won battles and they were tough."
In the long run, teams need the occasional tough loss the Badgers endured on Friday, in order to reassess areas of improvement and to possibly spur motivation. The second night of a weekend series then provides teams with a quick chance to follow through on their goals. Or in this case, score a couple.
Wisconsin unabashedly aspires to lay claim to the throne Denver enjoys. But the Pioneers certainly are not planning on simply handing it over. As Carlson put it, the Badgers will have to go out on the ice and grab what they want—starting now.