Program has benefited from seniors' diligence

Quintet helped Wisconsin return to prominence

MADISON—If there is one player who really embodies Wisconsin's senior class that will be honored at the Kohl Center this weekend, it is A.J. Degenhardt.

He and his four roommates since freshman year—Adam Burish, Tom Gilbert, Nick Licari and Ryan MacMurchy—endured an immense struggle physically, mentally and emotionally their freshman year. And they worked through it to get where they are today.

But Degenhardt went through another battle at the beginning of this season. While his situation earlier this year wasn't so much a physical struggle, it took a toll on his mind, as he found himself out of the lineup for much of the first half of the season.

"The way we saw it in our freshman year we'd come in and if you're willing to work hard you're going to play," Gilbert said.

And that freshman group did play—the only player who missed more than five games was Burish and that was due to a broken collarbone.

"[So] it was tough for [Degenhardt] because he's been through it all and he felt like he deserved to play," Gilbert said. "It was kind of hard for him the first couple weekends, but he's proved [himself] in the second half and he's just playing awesome."

It is that hard work and that refusal to give up that this senior group will be remembered for.

"We're all hard-working guys, and that's what's got me to where I am right now, the hard that I bring," Degenhardt said. "All five of us are the same type of players. We just come and bring our hard every day and that's what gets us where we are."

This week has been one of reminiscing about 6 a.m. workouts their freshman year that took a lot out of a team that was finding it difficult to win games. It was not a pretty season and not one that Badger fans wish to remember, but it built the character in this group of seniors that was the foundation to turning the UW program around.

And when it's all said and done, that's what this group wants to be remembered for.

"[We're] the group that got this team back on track," Degenhardt said. "Our first year here we had a really bad year and every year since then we've kind of built up a little bit and kind of got us back going in the right direction.

"We're a hard-nosed class that got us back on track."

Wisconsin will be looking for that hard-working, hard-nosed attitude this weekend when it takes on St. Cloud State at the Kohl Center. The talk this week has been about returning to square one, getting back to the basics and just playing hard.

Thanks to a stretch now where the Badgers have won just three of their last 11 games, UW head coach Mike Eaves' proverbial mountain trip has become that much harder. In fact, what began as a small rain storm has turned into a turbulent thunderstorm compacted with a few wrong turns along the way.

"Every team always has some kind of bump in the road," said Gilbert, an assistant captain. "It's a big storm we have and we just have to weather it."

But there is more on the line this weekend than just a little momentum.

Wisconsin, which once led the WCHA by eight points, now find themselves in third place, battling Denver and Colorado College for second, third and fourth place. While that doesn't sound like much, for purposes of seeding in the league tournament—which begins next weekend—it's a pretty big deal.

Assuming the top team wins their opening round series in that tournament, the second and third place teams don't play until Friday night, whereas the fourth and fifth place teams must play their way in to the final four-team bracket.

"They're very much aware of that," Eaves said.

Part of getting those much-needed points this weekend will be getting some consistency back between the pipes.

Since returning three games ago, Brian Elliott—who was one of the best goaltenders in the country before he got injured in practice April 2—has given up 15 goals in three games, none of them victories.

And his replacement while he was out, the rookie Shane Connelly, has shown signs of improvement, but is still working his way to true form under goaltending coach Bill Howard.

Eaves allowed the two to battle it out for the starting nod during practice this week.

"I'm just looking for who's really going to step up in practice a bit and indicate that they're going to be the best guy to play," Eaves said. "You've got to play the best guy right now. You want to get two points right now."

Against St. Cloud State, the Badgers can be fairly certain they will see a steady netminder in the Huskies junior Bobby Goepfert. He boasts a 2.06 goals against average and a .927 save percentage.

And while the Huskies don't appear to have a prolific offensive threat, if given the opportunities which Minnesota State had last weekend, St. Cloud State could do just as much damage.

And remember, the Huskies hung a tie on the Badgers early in the year just before the latter began to look like a nearly unbeatable team.

As for Eaves' recipe to victory, it much resembles the strategy for this week in practice.

"We need to get ourselves in a position where we see each other doing the things that we were once doing," Eaves said. "We can practice hard which makes them feel good about themselves, we can revisit the fundamentals…but we have to show each other we can do it in the game."

What: No. 19 St. Cloud State (13-11-2 WCHA, 18-12-4 overall) at No. 5 Wisconsin (15-8-3, 21-9-3)
When: Friday, March 3, 7 p.m.; and Saturday, March 4, 7 p.m.
Site: Kohl Center (15,237), Madison, Wis.
Broadcasts: Friday's game will be broadcast on TV live on Fox Sports North and Saturday's contest will be broadcast live on UPN-14. Both games can be heard on the radio at 1310 WIBA-AM.
Series notes: Wisconsin leads St. Cloud State 32-20-7 all-time and 20-10-3 in Madison. The Badgers are 4-0-2 in the last six meetings which includes a UW win and tie at St. Cloud in the second week of this season.

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