When last year's NCAA brackets were announced, the Badgers were on the outside looking in, missing the 16-team national tournament by two ten-thousandths of a point, according to the USCHO.com Pairwise Rankings that mimic the selection process.
Strength and Conditioning Coach Jim Snider decided to use that sliver of pain for good. He hung that number in the weight room, put it in high-traffic areas players would see and made T-shirts for summer training.
On the front had that ugly reminder (.0002) of how painful close UW had to come to making the post season. On the back stated a simple question: ‘Are you willing?'
"That just showed us, ‘Are you willing to do that extra rep? Are you willing to go that extra mile to get stronger?' and I think it's really shown," junior goalie Scott Gudmandson said. "You go into the weight room and you see that, it gives you the motivation to get going. We were in there sometimes at 7 a.m. You see that and that wakes you up pretty quick."
It terms of making amends, plenty could be signaled out for Wisconsin in a statement season. Earning a No.1 seed in the West Region, Wisconsin (25-10-4) takes on No. 4 seed Vermont (17-14-7) in the first round of the 2010 NCAA Men's Ice Hockey Tournament on Friday at 8 p.m. in the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Senior forward Blake Geoffrion, who finished one point off the league scoring title, leads the WCHA with 25 goals, a main reason he was one of the 10 named as a Hobey Baker Finalist.
The same distinction goes junior defenseman Brendan Smith, leading the nation's defensemen with 15 goals, 45 points and a 1.18 points-per-game mark and is one of the game's best defensemen.
"You looked at that number and you got (ticked) off at it," said junior forward Patrick Johnson, who has a plus-8 ratio this season. "Guys came back with a purpose this season and we've proved out point so far."
Those players were expected to contribute, but getting contributions from senior center Aaron Bendickson (has more points in 39 games (20) than he had his previous 104 (18)) and freshman forward Craig Smith (30 points) have added to their potency and their depth.
"I think there were a lot of things that got us here, but experience was one of the factors and the depth we have has been huge," Gudmandson said. "We've got a lot of quality freshman and we had a lot of quality returning guys that gave us a pretty deep team."
But the play of Gudmandson can also be signaled out as a turning point for Wisconsin. Going 2-3-2 with a 3.16 goals against average and 88.1 save ratio in his previous two seasons as a backup to Shane Connelly, Gudmandson was taken aback when the Badgers recruited junior transfer Brett Bennett into the program to challenge for the position.
It was at that point that Gudmandson worked daily during the summer with Mike Valley, a former UW goaltender who works in the NHL as the goaltending consultant with the Dallas Stars. The results have showed, as Gudmandson is 17-4-4 with a 94.3 save percentage, including 3-1 in the postseason and 6-2-3 in games against teams in the NCAA Tournament field.
"That helped with the competition," said Gudmandson of bringing in Bennett. "I know in the summer when I found out that there was another junior coming in that this wasn't how I had planned my college career. I got motivated to work that much harder."
A year ago, Wisconsin didn't win a game in its first seven tries, looked lethargic in a home January sweep against a below average Northern Michigan squad and had a five-game winless streak at the tail end of the season. Had Wisconsin turned one loss into a tie or one tie into a win, it would have been playing in the national tournament.
"It came down to one game," Johnson said. "Every game matters in the end."
Wisconsin has taken that to heart this season, being the only team in the country to have not lost back-to-back games along the way, a factoid that has earned them the right to be comfortable.
Staying in the same hotel for the third straight week, the Badgers will be playing on the same rink it played on last weekend when it finished third in the WCHA Final Five. Familiar with the boards, the rink and the bounces, Wisconsin will take any break it can get when it comes to a one-and-done tournament, even if it's .0002 percent of a point.
"It's all about coming in, being prepared, playing our game right away and coming out hot," Johnson said. "We've proven that so far. We just have to keep going. Hopefully, we have four games left and if we play our game, we'll be right there."