A month and a half ago, the Wisconsin men’s hockey team was on top of the world. Now, after hitting rock bottom with a pair of losses at Minnesota State this weekend, the Badgers find themselves trying to dig their way out of a hole.
It was Sunday, Jan. 15, when Wisconsin was leaving Colorado College fresh off a 9-1 blowout to cap a sweep of the Tigers. The Badgers were sitting pretty with an eight-point lead in the WCHA.
Six Sundays later, they boarded a bus home from Mankato, Minn., after a disappointing weekend. Not only did the 6-4 and 7-3 losses help Minnesota clinch the MacNaughton Cup, but it also dropped UW to third place in the WCHA heading into the final weekend of action.
“We can’t really dig ourselves much deeper than we already have,” junior blue-liner Jeff Likens said.
“Maybe we needed a little bit of a wake-up call,” senior captain Adam Burish said. “At the start of the season, we had a little bit of a swagger, a little bit of cockiness. That might have gone too far.”
Things were looking up for the Badgers Saturday night. A goal by Robbie Earl with just 31 seconds left in the first period helped them climb back from a two-goal deficit and head into the second period with the momentum in a 2-2 game.
But all that momentum faded in the form of four-straight Maverick goals to open the second period, starting with a John Kalinski blast just 1:24 in.
“When you get in a downward spiral, you always go back to your roots, and our roots have always been … play hard,” UW head coach Mike Eaves said. “That’s the reason that [Maverick] team down the hallway was successful. We have to go back to that.”
After back-to-back goals from Chad Brownlee and Jeff Marler at 3:47 and 4:57, respectively, Eaves pulled UW starting goalie Brian Elliott in favor of freshman Shane Connelly.
“We’ve kind of got off course. We’re playing disconnected. We’ve lost our swagger, we’ve lost our confidence,” Eaves said. “We’re floundering a little bit.”
Elliott went to Minnesota State the nation’s leader in both goals against average and save percentage. The junior left having fallen to fourth in the country with a 1.87 goals against average and 10th with a .925 save percentage.
Following his return to the lineup Feb. 11 after missing eight games due to injury, he is now winless in his last three games.
“I feel the same way as all the other guys,” Elliott said. “I’m actually excited to get back to practice on Monday. I know all the guys understand what we have in front of us and what our task is.”
Things didn’t go much better for Connelly, who would allow two more goals in a five-goal second period for MSU, which skated away with a 7-3 victory to cap a sweep.
One night earlier, it was a similar Maverick run which did the Badgers in.
Wisconsin scored three times in the opening 13 minutes, but lost momentum when it allowed back-to-back goals with less than 10 seconds remaining in the opening frame.
“On the road, that’s the best start and best 19:50 we can play,” Burish said. “We felt like we were the best team in the country. Then in 10.5 seconds to crumble like that, it’s disappointing.”
“I thought we played the way we wanted to. We had rhythm, we had goals, we didn’t give up a lot,” Eaves said of the first 19:50 of the first period. “[Those two goals were] a turning point.”
The Mavericks used that energy to score four more times — for a total of six unanswered goals — in the final 40 minutes and earn the upset comeback win.
When the dust settled after a long players — only meeting following Saturday’s loss, the Badgers were disappointed but appear to have a grip on how to turn things around heading into the postseason.
“We had a little heart-to-heart with all the guys and talked about what we need to do to get back to what we did at the beginning of the year,” Likens said. “We know what we’ve got to do and we’ll be ready.”
Eaves, who entered the locker room later, said his players were saying what he had hoped to hear, and — despite the fact that many are saying “Here we go again” with the Badgers’ third-straight season in which they have struggled in the second half of the schedule — he has confidence that they will right the sinking ship.
“It’s interesting how the cycle goes in athletics. In January, we’re 18-2-2 in Colorado on a beautiful Sunday waiting to come home,” Eaves said. “And now we’re here at this point, and we have to really go back to some basics. We’re still coming up on our biggest part of our season, and we know what we’re capable of doing.”