Men's hockey: Evading the doldrums

Badgers are maintaining an edge as the WCHA season nears completion

It is no secret that athletic seasons get long. Just about every league outside of the NFL seems to go on forever.

Consequently, there comes a time about three-quarters of the way through those long schedules when the excitement fades a bit and practices just seems like work. For the first time under head coach Mike Eaves, the Badgers have not come across that feeling this year.

Despite enduring a rocky second half of the season for the third year in a row—though with the injury to starting goalie Brian Elliott in January this year is arguably different from the two years past—the second-half doldrums have been avoided and the Badgers remain energized heading into their final road series of the season at Minnesota State.

"Right around the Minnesota series and the Denver series, that's when it gets long, that's the long part of the season," senior captain Adam Burish said. "Obviously it wasn't fun being on the road going to Tech, going to Duluth—those aren't fun road trips. It's not the Taj Mahal. But now you get close to the playoffs, that energizes guys."

"It's a long season and your legs are getting tired and your body's getting tired and exams are right now, so it's a combination," Elliott said. "But you've got to fight through that, and that's the mentality right now."

It seems funny to keep going back to the game at Lambeau, but there is no doubt that the Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic played a vital role in keeping the Badgers' spirits up.

"That was a big energizer," Burish said. "Guys are still talking about it."

Of course, getting Elliott back last weekend didn't hurt either.

The netminder who guided the Badgers to an 18-2-2 record before he was injured during a practice a little more than a month ago, returned to his spot in the crease last weekend. And though his first start back resulted in a tie, there is no arguing with the numbers he has put up—his 1.51 goals against average and .939 save percentage lead the country.

"That's a huge boost too—it's been awesome for the guys," Burish said. "It's an added sense of confidence guys have."

However, whether it is that renewed sense of confidence or a sense of urgency based on the recent results, it wasn't necessarily the best week of practice for UW. Wednesday's practice this week was marred by mistakes both big and small.

Fourth-year head coach Mike Eaves found himself blowing his whistle and shaking his head a number of times, and when a pair of players crashed into Elliott in a heated drive to the net, Eaves probably didn't need to say anything.

Luckily, Elliott sprung back up and got right back into the mix just moments later. Sprawling out to his right, he made a fairly easy initial save, but the puck remained loose as he scrambled back up, slid back across the crease and somehow used his blocker to turn away a point-blank shot.

"Guys kind of held their breath and we're like … take it easy, we already lost him once," Burish said. "Then he jumps back up and makes a [Dominik] Hasek-like save."

Still, after that practice, Eaves couldn't say for sure if Elliott would be in net for both of Wisconsin's games this weekend. He will start Friday, and the coaching staff will take things one game at a time beyond that.

The junior goalie said he hopes to play both games of the series against the Mavericks in order to get back into a rhythm that cannot be achieved by playing one game a weekend.

"I'd like to play two games and get back in that rhythm," Elliott said. "Just getting that one game is tough to get in there and then sit out."

If UW has seen its struggles in the last month, then the Mavericks have seen their share this entire season. After opening the year with six straight losses, they have seen spurts of promise along the way, but have coupled winning streaks with losing streaks on the way to a record below .500.

Coming off a sweep of St. Cloud, Minnesota State has also won five of its last eight games.

"They do the one basic thing that allows them a chance to win games and that's play very hard. And their goaltending has been pretty good of late," Eaves said.

Despite it's up-and-down year, Minnesota State definitely has the ability to win night in and night out. Junior Travis Morin has 19 goals to go along with 19 assists and classmate David Backes, who is second on the team with 36 points, has done his fair share of damage against UW.

Suffice it to say that the Badgers are taking nothing for granted this weekend. Not only did they beat the Mavericks by just one goal in both games at the Kohl Center earlier this year, but every team is playing for its seed in the WCHA tournament.

Plus, the MacNaughton Cup is not yet out of reach, and the lingering sour taste in the mouths of the Badgers after struggling down the stretch the last two years will keep Wisconsin hungry this weekend.

"Last year left a sour left a sour taste," Elliott said. "We had our position locked up in the NCAAs, came in and got beat before we even got on the ice. It was a tough thing to swallow."

"We had a meeting before the Tech series just with the guys and one thing the older guys said is every year we seem to limp into the playoffs and lets try to do something about that this year," Burish said. "We just said, let's try to get some momentum here, let's win these last four games. Playoff hockey starts now."

What: No. 2 Wisconsin (15-6-3 WCHA, 21-8-3 overall) at Minnesota State (10-13-3, 14-16-4)
When: Friday, Feb. 24, 7:30 p.m.; and Saturday, Feb. 25, 7 p.m.
Site: Midwest Wireless Civic Center, Mankato, Minn.
Broadcasts: Saturday night's game will be broadcast live on television on Fox Sports North. Both games can be heard live on WIBA-AM Radio 1310.
Series notes: Wisconsin is 13-7-2 against Minnesota State all-time, but are just 4-5-1 on the road. The Badgers, who swept the Mavericks 2-1 and 3-2 in Madison earlier this year, have never earned a sweep in Mankato. UW is also 6-1-1 in the last eight meetings.

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