It's a refrain Wisconsin hockey fans are used to hearing: their team may recruit well and have the talent to make a run at the NCAA title, but for whatever reason they never convert on that potential. That conventional wisdom held true last year, as a promising squad collapsed in the last few series of the year and failed to make the NCAA tournament.
But this time around, it looks like things are going to be different.
Heading into this season the Badgers were yet again a supremely talented team led by a strong core of veterans and propelled by an emerging group of promising young stars. With the memory of last season's failure fresh in their minds, however, this team seems to have put it all together—given their record, their talent and the strength they showed last weekend against Denver, the 2009-'10 Badgers are playing like national champions.
On offense, the Badger attack is nothing short of prolific, torching weaker opponents and exploiting some of the best goaltenders in the WCHA. Wisconsin scored seven goals over two games against Denver goaltender Marc Cheverie, no small feat when facing the goalie that has the highest save percentage and lowest goals-against average in the conference.
The Badgers' scoring attack ranks second in the country, averaging four goals per game, while Wisconsin outscores their opponents by 1.67 goals per game, on average—tops in the nation. Junior defenseman Brendan Smith is the national leader in points per game for defensemen and has been named a leading candidate for the Hobey Baker, one of college hockey's highest honors.
At the start of the season, I doubted head coach Mike Eaves' system to share starting goaltender duties between juniors Brett Bennett and Scott Gudmandson. But the two goalies have worked well as a tandem and the only reason no one player has emerged as the clear starter is because they have both been so strong. Granted, this kind of system probably will not work in the postseason, but Eaves said earlier in the season he was confident one starter would emerge by the end of the year.
All of these elements have come together wonderfully in the past few games, exactly when they need to since the Badgers are in the thick of their toughest stretch this season.
Wisconsin has faced hostile environments at No. 4 North Dakota and No. 11 Colorado College, the nonconference challenge of No. 6 Yale and the ultimate test: formerly-No. 1 Denver.
Out of a possible 16 points in their past eight games, the Badgers took 11, none more impressive than the three points they earned last weekend and good for a No. 2 national ranking and eight first-place votes in the most recent USCHO.com poll.
After falling behind Denver 2-0 in the third period of the series opener Friday Wisconsin stormed back, scoring three goals in just over four minutes to come back and take the lead. The Badgers eventually let the Pioneer tie the game up with just 1:56 to go, but in that stretch we saw exactly what this team can do.
The next night, Wisconsin captured that energy and carried it through the whole game, taking an astounding victory that put me on the brink of a heart attack for most of the third period. It was a game that showcased two of the most elite teams in college hockey, each playing their best for 60 minutes—hockey or otherwise, it was one of the best games I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing.
This weekend's series against No. 9 Minnesota-Duluth will be the Badgers' next test, and will reveal whether or not the team can maintain the intensity from their series with Denver against another top 10 team. A few weeks later, they will take on surprisingly strong No. 5 St. Cloud State Feb. 19 and 20, then resurgent Minnesota to close out the regular season.
Yes, it will be a tough end to the regular season, and an even harder road once the Badgers reach the WCHA Final Five and NCAA Tournament. But if they play for the rest of the year like they fought for the win Saturday night, something title-winning teams do, Wisconsin will hoist another championship banner into the Kohl Center rafters.
Do you think the Badgers will win a national title this year? E-mail Nico at firstname.lastname@example.org.