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NCAA Hockey Tournament: For a change, Wisconsin Badgers have momentum
The Badgers will be locked arm-in-arm with momentum, something they've not experienced to this hot and heavy degree in any previous trip to the NCAA tournament under coach Mike Eaves.
One night after winning the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoff championship for the 12th time in program history, UW learned Sunday that it will face Massachusetts Lowell in the NCAA Northeast regional semifinals at 3:30 p.m. Friday at Verizon Wireless Center in Manchester.
The Badgers (22-12-7 overall) are seeded fourth in the regional and 14th in the 16-team field after securing an automatic berth with their 3-2 victory over Colorado College Saturday night at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.
Lowell (26-10-2) is seeded first in the regional and third overall after it swept the Hockey East Association regular-season and playoff titles, its season following a very similar pattern to that of UW.
The River Hawks started 4-7-1, but are 22-3-1 since Dec. 8 and have won five straight.
The Badgers started 1-7-2, but are 21-5-5 since Nov. 30 and have won six straight.
Eaves said Sunday that his club is "pretty close" to playing its best hockey. That translates into a lot of momentum for UW as it heads into its 13th consecutive week of games.
"The issue for us is just maintaining what we have and just keep going," he said Sunday night after the NCAA pairings were announced.
That's not been the case in five previous NCAA tournament assignments UW has had since Eaves took over in 2002.
In 2004, the Badgers were upset at home by Alaska-Anchorage in the opening round of the WCHA playoffs and spent a week waiting to see if they'd get an NCAA berth. They ultimately beat Ohio State in the regional semifinals, but fell a step short of the Frozen Four with an overtime loss to Maine.
A year later, UW staggered into the national tournament having won just three of its previous 13 games (3-7-3). The result was a one-and-done thumping at the hands of Michigan in the NCAA regional semifinal.
In 2006, the Badgers were still getting their mojo back following the knee injury to standout goaltender Brian Elliott, losing to North Dakota in the WCHA Final Five semifinals. They regrouped in memorable fashion, winning five straight games en route to the sixth NCAA title in program history.
Two years later, UW wobbled to the finish line of the regular season and was swept by St. Cloud State in opening round of the WCHA playoffs. That gave way to the NCAA regional at the Kohl Center where a dominating semifinal win over Denver was followed by a bitter overtime loss in the regional final to North Dakota.
In 2010, the Badgers were shut out by St. Cloud State in the Final Five semifinals only to regain their stride and advance to the NCAA title game where they fell to Boston College.
The difference this time is that UW started so poorly that its margin for error was almost zero by the time Thanksgiving rolled around. That reality reached a climax at the Final Five when the Badgers won three do-or-die games in three days to complete an impressive set of Broadmoor Trophy bookends.
UW won the first Final Five when the format was introduced in 1988. It also won the last, seeing how the Badgers are leaving for the newly formed Big Ten Conference in 2013-14.
"We've been playing playoff hockey you could almost say since the beginning of December," Eaves said. "We've learned to live in that mindset, prepare in that mindset and play to that. I think that's been a benefit for us."
Eaves said he knows "absolutely very little" about Lowell and will begin the scouting and evaluation process in earnest this morning.
Cliffs Notes version: The River Hawks rank in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense (2.08 goals per game) and penalty killing (85.7 percent success ratio) thanks in large part to rookie goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. He leads the country in save percentage (94.9) and winning percentage (18-2, .900) and is second in goals-against average (1.39) and shutouts (five).
If the Badgers find a way to get past Lowell, they'll face either New Hampshire (19-11-7) or fellow WCHA resident Denver (20-13-5). The four regional titlists will advance to the Frozen Four April 11 and 13 in Pittsburgh.
UW is one of six WCHA clubs that made the field. All but one, Minnesota State-Mankato, will reside elsewhere next season. While Minnesota joins the Badgers in the Big Ten, North Dakota and St. Cloud will join Denver in the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
What gives Eaves his greatest sense of belief that he could be cradling another NCAA championship trophy in a couple weeks?
"Just what we've been through," he said, referring to the poor start and a series of debilitating personnel issues. "Because of the tough times we've learned some hard lessons and we're going to need to pull on those lessons as we go into a really difficult time of the season."