When you start the season 1-7-2, you don't have much room for error the rest of the way. The Badgers didn't panic, losing just five times in their final 31 games.
When you lose to fledgling Penn State just four weeks before NCAA selections, the margin for error becomes even slimmer. Wisconsin didn't buckle under the pressure, winning eight of nine since that time.
Despite the early-season critics, the 26 men inside the Wisconsin locker room never lost faith in the task at hand. As junior right-wing Tyler Barnes noted this week, the team may have used the early criticism as a rallying point.
"I think it's a little pride," Barnes said. "It's a little of all of it. Just knowing how people were thinking about our team when we started out that poorly and that people didn't really believe in us. We always had that belief, and I think it's pride now coming out being able to show what we're actually capable of."
Barnes was one player who was on the hot list of critics concerns early in the season, as he registered just one goal in his first 12 games after entering the season as a player looked upon as a difference-maker. The Eagan, Minn., native has come on in the second half, registering 11 goals in his past 17 games, and five goals in his past four games.
"I felt like all season I was getting the chances, and now that they're starting to go for me," Barnes said. "It's a nice reward for that."
Since March 1, Barnes' line that also features left-wing Nic Kerdiles and center Mark Zengerle has been the top line in the entire country. Kerdiles carries an 11-game point streak into the tournament, which includes multi-point games in his past five contests. Zengerle hasn't so been bad himself, registering 12 points in his past nine games.
All that has added up to the Badgers being one of the most potent offensive teams in the country down the stretch. In its past 11 games, Wisconsin has gone on a tear, scoring 43 goals. Its 3.93 goals-per-game average over that time period ranks third in the country.
That's quite the change in trends, considering Wisconsin started the season with just 18 goals in its first 10 games of the season, for an average of 1.8 goals per game.
In the first round of the NCAA tournament, the fourth-seeded Badgers will face off against top-seeded UMass-Lowell, winners of the Hockey East regular-season and playoff titles.
Regardless of who they play the rest of the way, the Badgers have the confidence they can get the job done.
"I'm just excited for the opportunity we have, and I'm excited for this team," Wisconsin captain John Ramage said. "This team has come a long way, and the way we're playing right now, I don't think any one seed wants to play us right now."
UMass-Lowell (No. 1 seed)
While the Badgers enter the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country, UMass-Lowell may be THE hottest team in the nation. The River Hawks have lost just three times since Dec. 8, going 22-3-1 in their final 26 games.
For its efforts, UMass-Lowell won both the Hockey East regular-season and playoff championships.
UMass-Lowell's success starts from the net out, and it is led by freshman Connor Hellebuyck, who has gone 18-2 with a .949 save percentage this season.
Defensively, the River Hawks feature Hockey East first-team selection Chad Ruhwedel, who plays both ends of the ice and has chipped in 22 points to go along with stellar defensive play.
"He's our oldest defenseman in terms of years," Lowell head coach Norm Bazin said this week. "He's basically our senior, since we don't have any senior defensemen. He's not a real vocal guy, but he leads by example. We count on him for leadership on and off the ice."
UMass-Lowell also features three scoring lines that have the ability to take over a game at any time. The River Hawks' depth is what separates them from the pack, as their top three scorers, Joseph Pendenza, Scott Wilson and Derek Arnold all play on different lines.
New Hampshire (No. 2 seed)
The host school in the Northeast Regional is the New Hampshire Wildcats, who enter the tournament on a small skid, losing three of its past five games.
The Wildcats are hoping their fans make the short trek from Durham to Manchester for the Regional, where they feel very comfortable playing, according to head coach Dick Umile.
"We play one game there a season, and we love playing over there," Umile said.
UNH is led by all-conference performers Trevor van Riemsdyk, Kevin Goumas and Casey DeSmith. Goumas was a second-team Hockey East selection, recording 42 points in 37 games, while van Reimsdyk, a defenseman, was picked for the first team.
If the Wildcats are to advance in this tournament, they are going to need DeSmith to step up between the pipes. The sophomore was outstanding in the first-half, but struggled down the stretch.
Denver (No. 3 seed)
When the Pioneers are on top of their game, they are one of the better teams in the country. However, they have failed to sustain much consistency this season to warrant the praise of one of the elite teams in the land.
Denver started the season hot, winning nine of its first 10 games, but struggled the rest of the way to find wins on a consistent basis.
The Pioneers will face UNH in their opening game, a team they should be familiar with. The two met up in Denver in November, with UNH coming out on top, 6-4.
Denver is led up front by the line of Nick and Quentin Shore, along with right-wing Chris Knowlton. Nick Shore and Knowlton are the top two forwards for the Pioneers, with 33 and 29 points, respectively.
DU also receives a large chunk of its offense from the back-end, which starts with all-WCHA performer Joey LaLeggia. The junior blue-liner in the Justin Schultz mold has recorded 11 goals and 29 points this season in 38 games.
Between the pipes you can expect to see Juho Olkinuora. The sophomore from Finland has taken the reigns for the Pioneers, who also feature highly regarded goaltenders Sam Brittain and Adam Murray.
Friday's Wisconsin game vs UMass-Lowell (3:30 p.m. CT) can be seen live on ESPN3.com, TVW (Madison), Time Warner Sports Channel and NESN.
As always, the games can be found on the radio on the Badger Sports Network and WIBA 1310.
Wisconsin is No. 8 in both the USCHO.com poll and the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine Poll
UMass-Lowell is No. 3 in both polls.
New Hampshire is No. 10 in both polls.
Denver is No. 12 in both polls.
Wisconsin will be without freshman Morgan Zulinick (thigh) and senior Derek Lee (knee).
Wisconsin beat UMass-Lowell, 3-2, on Dec. 4, 1988. Brett Kurtz, Tom Saggissor and Dennis Sneddon scored for the Badgers in the game, while Curtis Joseph made 22 saves in goal for the victory.
UMass-Lowell sophomore defenseman Jake Suter is the son of former Badger Gary Suter. Jake is also the cousin of former Badger Ryan and nephew of former Badger Bob Suter.
"You really feed off your goaltender. If your goaltender is feeling confident, it really helps you out, especially in the D zone, with our own confidence, and you feel more comfortable. Having someone that's playing so well right now back there really helps out with everyone on the ice." -- Captain John Ramage on goaltender Joel Rumpel.
Nic Kerdiles-Mark Zengerle-Tyler Barnes
Joseph LaBate-Brendan Woods-Michael Mersch
Ryan Little-Jefferson Dahl-Sean Little
Brad Nevin-Keegan Meuer-Matt Paape
Jake McCabe-Frankie Simonelli
Kevin Schulze-John Ramage
Eddie Wittchow-Joe Faust
BADGER HOCKEY DIGEST (UWBADGERS.COM)
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