The University of Wisconsin men's hockey team has been reeling, and pretty much backed into home ice for the opening rounds of the upcoming WCHA playoffs by losing four of its last five (and coughing up a two-goal lead in tying the fifth decision).
But with just 60 minutes of "playoff effort" and a little help from the Denver Pioneers, UW has got its swagger back and has landed its regular season plane in a healthy spot with great opportunity for postseason success.
The Badgers finished their regular season with 31 points in Western Collegiate Hockey Association play, tied with Colorado College for third place in the league. But because Wisconsin owned the tiebreaker between the two clubs, CC's tie against Denver late Saturday night wasn't good enough to vault the Tigers over the Badgers, and thus UW claimed the third seed for the playoffs.
That sets up an opening round matchup with Minnesota State-Mankato, and should the Badgers prevail in the best-of-three series at the Kohl Center next weekend, the No. 3 designation assures that Wisconsin will avoid the dreaded play-in game and head straight to the Final Five semifinals.
That notion obviously isn't lost on the Badgers.
"It's a memorable game in our season because of what it came down to," said goalie Shane Connelly, who made 38 saves Saturday night in UW's season-capping 4-1 win over North Dakota. "This puts us in a position to go out there and play, and skip the play-in game up at the Final Five. It's huge in terms of our psyche."
But standings and matchups aside, Saturday's victory served a greater importance; getting back that swagger that UW lost so quickly in the past two weeks when it was swept at home by Denver and then got just one point at Minnesota State, the upcoming opponent.
Then UW coughed up a one-goal, second-period lead on Friday night and had to watch the Fighting Sioux wrap up the MacNaughton Cup on its own ice sheet. So while Saturday's game was only one victory, Wisconsin will take whatever momentum comes with it heading into postseason play.
"We take a look at the quality of the hockey over the last six games that we've had, and in that time frame, we've played some pretty good hockey," UW coach Mike Eaves said. "We ran into some tough breaks, not getting the timely goal or the timely save, but tonight kind of set us up a little bit for the playoffs.
"Last night's game was a playoff game, and tonight we needed a playoff effort and got the result that we wanted with that effort," Eaves added. "That sets us up well for next week."
Wisconsin also got large contributions from some lesser-known sources, particularly critical in the absence of junior center and co-captain Blake Geoffrion who sat out the weekend with a knee injury.
Junior winger Ben Grotting notched one goal on each night, and played with great intensity all weekend long, earning him the "Hard Hat" award for hardest-working player by his teammates.
"Humongous weekend for Ben," Eaves said. "We double-shifted him, (he was) killing penalties, (and he) played with great energy. I think Ben is showing that he has another level inside him too. His ability to play this weekend was a statement of how he physically led by the way he played, and the guys recognized that with the ‘Hard Hat'."
But Saturday night belonged to freshman center Derek Stepan, who may be emerging as a budding star. Stepan scored not one, but two shorthanded goals to bust loose a one-all tie … and he scored them 102 seconds apart, on the same penalty kill.
Stepan capped his remarkable rookie regular season with eight goals and 22 points; his 30 points rank second on the team behind defender Jamie McBain. He and junior Andy Bohmbach, who assisted on both shorthanded goals, provided UW with an offensive spark that was otherwise missing with Geoffrion shelved.
"Blake's one of those guys that plays hard every single night, and collectively as a team, we all decided everyone needed to step up," Stepan said. "Some guys got extra opportunities, but as a team, everyone needed to step up their game."
Asked about Stepan's development, Eaves made a startling comparison to a former Badger who led Wisconsin in scoring during its 2006 national title season.
"I know I'm putting pressure on him, but he (reminds me of) Joe Pavelski. He reminds me of his ability to be perceptive on the ice and yet still do the things that he wants," Eaves said. "He has a real perceptive hockey mind, he has a good hockey IQ, and he's got a skill set to go along with that."