ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Starting the season 1-7-2, the Wisconsin men's hockey team knew that it had a big hole to climb out of if it wanted to play in the NCAA tournament at the end of the season. With just five losses in their final 31 games, the Badgers have finally emerged from the deep crater.
In front of an announced crowd of 18,782 fans at the Xcel Energy Center Saturday night, Wisconsin (22-12-7) was able to complete its remarkable run, defeating Colorado College, 3-2, to win the WCHA's Broadmoor trophy as Final Five champions, and earning the leagues auto-bid to the NCAA tournament in the process.
The Badgers battled a multitude of adversity early in the season, but are where they are due in large part to the lessons learned along the journey this season. Now they get to test their fate in the NCAA tournament, which starts with regionals next weekend.
"We get to play another weekend," Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves noted after the game. "And it didn't look like (it would happen) at the beginning of the season."
"It's a great thing for these young men, because they played for each other, and learned some lessons the hard way -- there were a lot of silver linings that happened early in the season and they used them to their advantage, and stayed together through tough times and it served us well."
Despite going 20-5-5 in their final 30 games of the season, Saturday's game vs CC was still a must-win for the Badgers in terms of their NCAA hopes. Thanks to upsets in other conference tournaments around the country, the WCHA's auto-bid was Wisconsin's only hope at playing in the NCAA tournament next week.
After a sluggish first period, It appeared that the two teams were going to head into the first intermission scoreless, but UW junior winger Tyler Barnes had other plans. After a Frankie Simonelli shot from the point was tipped on goal by Nic Kerdiles, Barnes was there on the doorstep to clean up the rebound and send the Badgers into the break with a 1-0 lead.
Feeding off the momentum of Barnes' late first period goal, the Badgers jumped out to a two goal lead early in the second. Once again it was a point shot leading to a goal, this time with Sean Little getting a piece of a waist high shot from Jake McCabe.
With an NCAA tournament berth on the line, there was no way that Colorado College was going to go away quietly. At the 7:19 mark of the second period CC jumped on the board off of a fabulous line rush.
Tigers' star center Rylan Schwartz carried the puck into the Wisconsin zone down the left boards, and sent a beautiful back-door feed for freshman Charlie Taft, who was able to tap the puck past Wisconsin goaltender Joel Rumpel to cut the Badgers' lead in half.
Wisconsin appeared to extend its two goal lead a few minutes later on Sean Little's second goal of the game, but after review the tally was waived off due to Little using his hand to get the puck into the net.
The Badgers would go on to score again a few minutes later, and this time the officials couldn't take it away. UW captain John Ramage took the puck hard to the net, and Kerdiles was there on the doorstep to tap in the knee high rebound.
Kerdiles finished the weekend with six points in three games, and has now recorded multi-point games in all five Wisconsin playoff games. For his effort, the freshman from Irvine, Calif., was named the Final Five tournament MVP.
Shortly after Kerdiles' tally, the Badgers looked like they were about to extend their lead to three goals as a red-hot Barnes came in on CC goaltender Joe Howe all alone, but a pad save and a turnover sent the Tigers going the other way.
Once again it was Schwartz doing damage, as the senior was able to beat Rumpel to cut the Badgers' lead to 3-2 with just :28 seconds remaining in the second period.
In the third period Wisconsin's defense was suffocating, allowing just four shots to reach Rumpel who closed the door on the Tigers, earning the Badgers their first Broadmoor trophy since 1998.
Rumpel allowed just five goals in the tournament, and only two game at even-strength.
"Nothing seems to faze him too much, he's got the perfect demeanor for being a goaltender," Eaves noted. "He's calm in the face of the storm."
Colorado College was on quite the run themselves, but couldn't finish their improbable run Saturday night. CC head coach Scott Owens gave a lot of credit to the Badgers, and noted that they appear to be playing with a different gear right now.
"You can see how confident they are," Owens noted. "You can see it on ice level -- they are a confident looking team."
Those first 10 games of the season were tough mentally, and Eaves noted after the game Saturday that everyone in the program was forced to make a conscious effort every day to come to work with the mindset that they were going to turn this ship around.
"It was about making choices every day," Eaves said of the 1-7-2 start. "We have a choice, we can put our head down in the sand, or we can come back and go to work and make this thing better."
Since that time the Badgers have had a bump or two along the way, but Wisconsin senior alternate captain Ryan Little noted after the game that it's fun to come to the rink when the team is playing as well as they are.
"When you start winning, it's contagious in the locker room," Little said. "It's a lot of fun to be around each other and at the rink."
The Badgers were projected at the start of the season to be a tournament type team, and here they are. Ramage noted that it might not have been the most conventional way, but they are where they want to be right now.
"At the start of the season we knew exactly what type of team we had," Ramage said. "In our minds, we'd be where we're at right now."
With the win the Badgers have put themselves in a position to take a shot at another trophy, the NCAA championship.
"We've got to keep going, still a lot of hockey to be played," Ramage said.
For more Wisconsin hockey coverage, follow Andy on Twitter (@AndyJohnsonB5Q)
You can also reach Andy via e-mail (AndyJohnsonB5Q@gmail.com)