Back to the basics, back to square one.
That was the message during a 20-minute players-only meeting following Wisconsin’s Feb. 25’s 7-3 loss to Minnesota State. And that was the message through all of this week’s practices.
And despite a mediocre Wednesday practice, the Badgers finished a refreshing week Thursday — one that harkened back to those at the beginning of the season.
“It was an awesome practice, as awesome as it has been since the beginning of the year,” UW senior captain Adam Burish said. “There has to be that energy and excitement, and [it] has been there. The music has been jacked up in [the locker room]. When we get on the ice, guys are whooping it up and they’re battling harder.”
The coaches are doing their best to keep spirits high in practice as well. Whenever there was a big effort from goalies Brian Elliott or Shane Connelly, or whenever a sweet goal was scored, assistant coach Kevin Patrick could be seen smacking his stick on the ice and yelling words of encouragement.
“We went back to some September drills that are very basic,” UW head coach Eaves said.
Whether it’s taking the energy from getting back to those basics and getting pumped up in practice, or feeding off the raw emotion of a special senior class which will play its final regular-season series at the Kohl Center, the Badgers need to get out of their recent slump.
What started out as just a few drops of rain on Eaves’ proverbial trip up the side of a mountain has snowballed into a severe thunderstorm and a few wrong turns along the way.
Wisconsin is now 3-7-1 in its last 11 games since opening the season with an 18-2-2 stretch that stole the national spotlight. The Badgers know what it’s like to limp into postseason play, and based on the past two seasons, the results are not good.
“Every team always has some kind of bump in the road,” senior assistant captain Tom Gilbert said. “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, Elliott — who was one of the best goaltenders in the country before he got injured — has given up 15 goals in three straight losses.
And while his replacement during his absence, the rookie Connelly, has shown signs of improvement, he 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 they began to look like a nearly unbeatable team.
As for Eaves’ recipe to victory, it much resembles the strategy 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.”