After a 5-4 loss to Minnesota Friday night, the Badgers have now lost three straight at home before sellout crowds at the Kohl Center. Another loss to second-place Minnesota, and Wisconsin will be thrust into a tie for first place in the league standings—possibly a three-way tie if Denver completes a sweep at Alaska-Anchorage Saturday night.
"It's absolutely a must-win," UW senior captain Adam Burish said regarding Saturday's series finale. "Championship teams don't get swept at home, and we did that last weekend. So it's a little bit of a do-or-die game now, where you've got to make a statement, you got to put your foot down and say this can't happen at home if you want to win this league."
Two weeks ago Wisconsin looked like the king of college hockey awaiting its crown after sweeping Colorado College on the road to take a commanding conference lead. But after topping the Tigers 9-1 Jan. 14, the Badgers scored just two goals total in a pair of losses to defending national champion Denver last weekend. And Wisconsin looked miserable through two periods Friday and trailed 5-1 with 20 minutes to play.
Clearly, though, there was a silver lining Friday night, despite the defeat. Wisconsin needed to start scoring goals again, for one thing. And finishing the game the way the Badgers had played through 40 minutes might have been disastrous.
Said Burish: "If you kind of fold over there, you're going to come to the rink tomorrow with a few questions in your head: ‘Can we do this?' or ‘What's going on here now?'"
Instead, the Badgers dominated the third period, scoring three quick goals but coming up just short of completing the comeback.
"Now, it's, ‘Hey, we got something that we can build on,'" Burish said. "We don't need to change anything. We keep going the way we were going. Now we know there is no magic formula, there's no special thing we have to do. We just keep playing the way we've been playing. The way that third period went that can bump us right into the first period tomorrow and we'll be okay."
Regardless of the strong third period, though, the Badgers still find themselves thoroughly in need of a win psychologically. The current three-game skid begs the question: Is another second-semester swoon on its way? The last two seasons Wisconsin has had rough patches in the second semester dash its hopes of winning the MacNaughton Cup. Burish, though, insisted that this team, which was 18-2-2 prior to last weekend, will not let what happened in the past shake its confidence.
"I think it's more worrying about all the people around jam that into the guys' heads," he said. "You got to block it out. People are going to ask about it just because of the way we've been going here. But it's got to be blocked out because it's a different group of guys than we've had in the past…
"It's a group that puts it behind us. We still believe that we can win this league…
"It's a group of guys that isn't going to let that seep in, I don't think, as long as we continue to remind each other that this is a special group that we have. We're not going to let this slip…
"It's a mentally strong group of guys. It's a confident group of guys."
It is no secret the Badgers need to play better when they lace up the skates Saturday night. A team that had given up just 1.43 goals per game in its first 23 contests has now allowed nine in two outings.
This has obviously been a different team without dominating goaltender Brian Elliott between the pipes. With Elliott injured, backup Shane Connelly is now 0-3-0, but the blame for these losses must be spread much further than the freshman goalie. Wisconsin's play in front of its netminder has not been what it was prior to Elliott's injury.
UW coach Mike Eaves said that part of the problem in the Badgers' rough second period Friday night was that the entire team defensively was trying to play goalie instead of performing their responsibilities and allowing Connelly to do his job in net. Of Minnesota's three second-period goals, one was on an odd-man rush and another came through a screen.
"When you lose a key player there's adjustments that need to be made," Eaves said. "You're going into new territory. I think with the trust that the team had built up in Brian there's a sense of confidence back there…
"Right now we're trying to build some confidence with Shane and we're going through that process."
The end result is that Minnesota and Denver are now planted right behind Wisconsin in the WCHA standings, ready to pounce and snatch away the Badgers' title hopes.
"If you split on the road and you win your games at home, you've got a chance to win the league," Burish said. "We've done a good job on the road and as of late we've been pretty poor at home. We get swept and then obviously lose the first game now.
"You have to have it tomorrow. There's no other way about it. The good thing is the way we're leading into tomorrow's game after the third period. So that's a positive. That can get the guys a little juiced up."