Coming into the 2012-13 season, I had fairly high expectations for the Wisconsin men's hockey team. Sure, the Badgers had missed out on the NCAA tournament the two previous seasons and were losing all-world defenseman Justin Schultz to the NHL, but things were looking up.
The Badgers returned every player on their roster who registered at least two goals the previous season with the exception of Schultz, and that included junior center Mark Zengerle, who came back to Madison as the leading returning point producer in the country.
The Badgers were also returning two quality goaltenders, and bringing in a pair of impact freshman forwards who were expected to make a noticeable impression from the get-go.
I picked Wisconsin to finish third in the WCHA -- behind only Minnesota and North Dakota -- and expected them to be an NCAA tournament type team that could make a run once March rolled around.
This was to be an important season for UW head coach Mike Eaves and the Badgers. Since winning the national championship in 2006, Wisconsin had made NCAA tournament appearances in just two of the past six seasons, although one of those years saw the Badgers reach the Frozen Four.
Wisconsin had a very young team last year, and that experience was theoretically banked for future seasons of success. These next two seasons were set up for Eaves and the Badgers.
"If you look at history, you would say these are the two years we need to harvest our crop, so to speak." Eaves noted in a preseason press conference. "That's what we need to do."
A 1-7-2 start to the season that included sweeps at the Kohl Center by Colorado College and Minnesota State had me questioning if we had over-rated this team.
The losses to Minnesota State Nov. 23-24 were unquestionably the lowest point of the season. The Badgers showed flashes at times, but failed to put together 60 minutes either night.
After the Friday loss to the Mavericks, UW alternate captain Ryan Little didn't mince words when talking about where the Badgers were emotionally.
"We're pretty close to rock bottom," Little said at the time.
A loss the next night to Mankato had even the announcers queasy.
"My stomach hurts," Wisconsin TV commentator, and former Badgers defenseman Rob Andringa said as the final horn sounded. "My stomach literally hurts."
I've been a staunch defender of Eaves and what he provides to the program as the head coach, but even I was wavering in support. I went back through my Twitter history, and found some of my post game reaction at the time.
"UW's record now stands at 1-7-2. They've scored more than two goals only once," I noted at the time. "I'd say this is rock bottom but they go to Denver next week."
In his post game press conference following the Minnesota Sate sweep, Eaves talked about turning the ship around, and how it was going to take time.
"When you get in these funks, it is like turning a freight liner in the middle of the ocean," Eaves said. "You don't turn it on a dime. You have to bring it around in a circle."
The problem was that Wisconsin didn't have time. They were over a quarter of the way into the regular season, and needed immediate results.
"Wisconsin sits 56th (out of 59) in the RPI, and 55th in KRACH," I noted in another tweet. "Don't have time to slowly turn ship around. Need wins NOW for NCAA at large hopes."
The good news was that Wisconsin was going to get Nic Kerdiles back the next week from his NCAA suspension, and Zengerle was set to return in a few weeks from a finger injury suffered vs Colorado College.
At that point there was a realistic possibility that Eaves' job may be on the line the rest of the season. If the Badgers continued on the pace they were on, it certainly wasn't out of the realm of possibility.
"Badger fans, how long of leash would you give Eaves," I questioned aloud on twitter. "Is he safe no matter what happens? Need to make the NCAA's? Curious what you think."
The reaction was split. A lot of fans voiced concerns, while others told me I was a lunatic for even bringing up the question. Regardless, the overwhelming tone was that there was a lot of frustration over the putrid start.
After that Saturday game Eaves was asked if he could give the fans a message, what would it be?
"Stay with us. This group has not quit. They work hard," Eaves said. "We'll get healthier and we will have some difference makers in our lineup and they'll like watching this team, so stay with us."
I'm not afraid to admit it, after those first 10 games I didn't believe this team had the moxie to overcome their poor start. Even in the middle of February I wrote in an article that I didn't think this team would earn a birth in the tournament.
"If you can't tell, I'm pretty much resigned to the fact the Badgers will not be playing in the NCAA tournament this season," I said Feb. 21st.
A loss to fledgling Penn State a week later seemed to all but close the deal on this team's season I figured.
I was wrong. Oh, was I ever wrong.
Since Eaves implored the fans to stick with the team the Badgers have lost just five times in their past 31 games for a record of 21-5-5. That record is third best in the country over that time frame, behind only Quinnipiac and UMass-Lowell. Since the loss to Penn State, Wisconsin has won eight of nine games, and captured the Broadmoor trophy as WCHA playoff champions.
I questioned this team, and I was wrong.
One of my main criticisms of this team was its ability -- or lack thereof -- to put the puck in the net. Too many grinders, not enough goal scorers I said.
"This is one of the poorest offensive teams in the Eaves era."
I was wrong.
Since the 1-7-2 start, Wisconsin has averaged exactly three goals-per-game for a respectable ranking of 19th in the country.
Since I wrote the egregious line about being "one of the poorest offensive teams in the Eaves era," Wisconsin has gone on a tear, scoring 43 goals in 11 games. Their 3.93 goals-per-game average over that time period ranks third in the country.
Boy, was I wrong.
When I look back on things, I don't think I fully understood the leadership of this team. I underestimated the will of the veterans of this group, and I was wrong.
I remember back to that Minnesota State series and the statement that Ryan Little made to the media.
"I know no one in that room is going to give up, the coaching staff's not going to give up, the leadership group's not going to give up," Little said at the time. "That's our only option right now."
While others on the outside might have given up, including yours truly, no one inside that locker room did.
I asked coach Eaves this weekend about how important Wisconsin's leadership has been to its success.
"Leadership is a hard quality to quantify," Eaves noted. "You know when you have it, and you know when maybe you don't have it in spades. We're very fortunate to have John (Ramage) in our locker room. And we've got Jake McCabe as well who has been on world stages and Nic (Kerdiles) has been on world stages and been in some big games. I think we have a core group of people, Derek Lee who did not play this weekend is a strong leader, Ryan Little, (Frankie) Simonelli."
"We saw these things rise to the top when we struggled early in the year, it would have been very easy for the team to just fall apart. As a coaching staff we went in and tried to say the right things, and the leadership took over from there because they are around each other more than we are. They carried the flag, and they believed in what we were saying, and finally we had some tangible results and carried forth from there. But the leadership has been strong, and I think it was one of the silver linings that was in that rough time at the beginning."
This week Tyler Barnes was asked about the critics of this team early in the season. The junior winger refused to throw anyone under the bus, but called it a sense of pride to be able to prove others wrong.
"Just knowing that how people were thinking about our team when we started out that poorly and that people didn't really believe in us," Barnes said. "We always had that belief, and I think it's pride now coming out being able to show what we're actually capable of."
"If we listened to the critics all the time, we wouldn't be where we're at right now," Ramage added.
They're both right.
And I was wrong.
This weekend the Badgers take on UMass-Lowell in the Northeast Regional in Manchester, N.H. Like the Badgers, the River Hawks are one of the hottest teams in the country. Can Wisconsin win two games to advance to the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh, and prove me wrong once again?
I sure as hell don't see why not.
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