When the Wisconsin men's hockey team takes the ice at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit Thursday night, it will be doing so with renewed hope.
The Badgers finished the regular season 4-25-5, faltering down the stretch with an 0-6-1 record, shut-out in five of their final seven games, but none of that matters at this stage. When the Big Ten tournament starts today, every team has a record of 0-0.
Most importantly, if UW is able to pull off a minor miracle and win three games this weekend, it will advance to the NCAA tournament for the third-consecutive season.
Wisconsin drew the No. 6 seed in the tournament after finishing in the Big Ten cellar, and will drop the puck against third-seeded Michigan at 7:00 p.m. CT Thursday night on the Big Ten Network. The winner moves on to face No. 2 Michigan State on Friday.
"The best thing about sports, you can say there are the top teams and the bottom teams but on any given day I think teams can defeat each other and we go in there with that hope and see what we can come up with," Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves said.
The Wolverines won all four meetings against Wisconsin this season, but the Badgers have some things to build upon. First of all, UW has won conference tournaments the previous two seasons. Last year, the Badgers defeated Penn State and Ohio State to capture the inaugural Big Ten title. Two seasons ago, UW won three-consecutive games to win the WCHA Final Five.
"Athletics, especially college athletics, is the best reality show because there is no script, kids make mistakes and you can be in the game up to the last second," Eaves said.
Wisconsin will have its hands full with Michigan on Thursday night. The Wolverines lead the nation in scoring offense, averaging 3.88 goals per game this year.
Michigan is led offensively by Hobey Baker candidate Zach Hyman, who has destroyed the Badgers this season. Hyman has 19 goals and 49 points this season, with 10 of those points -- including four goals -- coming against the Badgers.
The Wolverines are complimented by freshman Dylan Larkin, who was named the Big Ten rookie of the year for his 43-point campaign. Justin Sellman has been another thorn in UW's side, with five of his 10 goals on the season coming against Wisconsin.
"They lead the country in offense, and we saw that firsthand here," Eaves said. We played them much tighter in their building. Even (Michigan head coach) Red (Berenson) complimented our team how the second series was closer.
"We have seen them, we've felt their offense. We have some tendencies. Because of all these things we have gone through, we probably are better prepared to play them. In a one game situation, anything can happen."
If the Badgers have one thing going for them, its the fact they will be playing on a small ice surface this weekend at Joe Louis arena. Home of the Detroit Red Wings, "The Joe" is a 200x85 NHL-sized ice sheet. Wisconsin has played much better in these small rinks, as opposed to the larger ice sheets like the one featured at the Kohl Center.
UW's even-strength possession numbers are just 40.53 percent on the big sheet, but the Badgers have an improved number of 46.75 percent on NHL-sized rinks. Looking even deeper, when Wisconsin played Michigan on the big sheet, the Badgers had even-strength possession of just 28.18 percent, but when UW faced the Wolverines for a series on an NHL-sized surface, that number improved significantly to 46.65 percent.
Regardless of what happens this weekend, it will be an opportunity for Wisconsin to play at a championship venue with rich history.
"This arena, excuse the pun, but it wreaks of history, like spilled beer, and cigarettes, and championships gone by," Eaves said. "We want our kids to walk the concourse and see the bronze trophy of Alex Delvecchio and Gordie Howe and just feel the history. I think it's a neat venue for us to go to."
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