Men's hockey: Championship dreams

Badgers faced reality this weekend — Denver is still the defending national champion.

MADISON—If it was not obvious beforehand, listening to the raucous chants emanating from the Denver locker room following Wisconsin's 4-2 loss on Saturday night made it apparent that this series meant something to the Pioneers.

Denver came into the weekend facing the possibility of dropping to .500 on the season, and also might have metaphorically passed the torch in the WCHA to the No. 1 ranked Badgers—who entered the series with an eight-point advantage in the standings over both Denver and Minnesota.

Instead of letting their recent struggles allow them to relent to Wisconsin in the only regular season series between the two programs, the two-time defending national champions rose to the occasion with a trait characteristic of championship teams but not found on the stat sheet—swagger.

"They have a swagger about them," UW captain Adam Burish said. "We talk about a swagger we want to create in that dressing room. The way (the Pioneers) handled themselves out there, the way they move the puck. The way that after the whistle blows they all stick up for each other. Their trash talking—they have a swagger about them, and you can tell it's a championship team."

In his fourth season at Wisconsin, coach Mike Eaves has continually built up a successful program that in the past two months has reached a pinnacle of his tenure, holding the top ranking in the nation since Nov. 28. However, as Eaves said after Saturday's game, players cannot be coached on how to play like a champion. That is something they must learn themselves.

Eaves equated it to playing for the NHL's Calgary Flames in the 1980s. He spoke of the challenge his team faced in trying to beat the notoriously dominant Edmonton Oilers teams of that time. Eventually, Eaves said they learned enough from taking their licks against the Oilers that they were able to experience how a championship team was successful and carried that out in finally besting Edmonton.

"They won't see the big picture right today," Eaves said. "But that's the message that eventually they'll understand as we go into practice the next week and go into the next series. They'll be more readily acceptable of that thought process and we'll preach it because it's the truth.

"We will be a better team because of who we played and how we played."

The Badgers came into this weekend having lost only two games all season. Yet they were consistently outplayed over the course of the series. With the emotional swing this team faced after losing one of the nation's top players in goalie Brian Elliott for 3-4 weeks, Wisconsin was facing its first real adversity of the season. It is something the Badgers knew would come at some point.

After losing 1-0 on Friday, some of the team's struggles could be chalked up to the ebb and flow of offense and the fact that on some nights teams just cannot seem to find the back of the net. But now that Denver unquestionably outperformed Wisconsin on Saturday and cut the conference lead to just four points with second place Minnesota coming to Madison next week, the Badgers suddenly need to respond with the swagger and confidence they seek to imitate.

"It's never good to lose but it's good to get this out of the way earlier than at the end of the season," senior defenseman Tom Gilbert said. "We're going to face Denver again in the WCHA maybe NCAA.

"To me it's just a sign that the rest of the season's going to be difficult to win games."

Denver never backed down nor did they beat themselves at any point over the weekend. Sophomore Ryan Dingle, who scored a pair of goals Saturday evening, thought this series indicated the Pioneers' character.

Despite a hostile crowd, Dingle said the team shared stories about the Kohl Center all week. He called it "an unbelievable place to play", but it was one where the visiting national champions still found a way to play as a team. They usually do in Madison, as Denver is now 9-1-2 in the building. The Pioneers certainly were not intimidated by anything.

"They talk their trash and they come out there and back it up," Burish said. "They're in your face the whole game. They don't back off for one second. They're tough. They're physical. They've got skill. I can tell right now why that team has won two national championships. That's contagious—the attitude they have on that team."

Eaves might be right about chalking this weekend up to a learning experience. For one thing, the Badgers learned they are not yet at a championship level. They hope to be there by March, when they can look back on what they learned and use it to beat Denver or whoever else stands in their way.

Whatever the Pioneers still have—call it swagger, call it chemistry, call it an ability to rise to the occasion—Wisconsin fans hope Eaves and Burish are both right. Hopefully, "it" is contagious, and hopefully the Badgers catch it.

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