Since hoisting the NCAA trophy in 2006, the Badger men's hockey team has always seemed to be just a bit less than the sum of its parts.
The squad was deep with talent for three seasons but languished at the edge of the NCAA tournament field, often too young and never quite able to translate a juggernaut on paper onto the ice. Those three years featured two springs spent at home during tournament time and one where it took ""the perfect storm,"" according to their coach, for the Badgers to just nab the last al-large spot.
Well, not this year.
Wisconsin sits at No. 3 in the polls and No. 4 in the Pairwise rankings, finally delivering on all that potential and with a chance to return to their perch as a member of the sport's elite class.
The Scott Gudmandson-Brett Bennett goaltender rotation has given Wisconsin its best numbers in net since Hobey Baker finalist Brian Elliott departed Madison. Junior defenseman Brendan Smith has filled the shoes of last season's top scorer, Jamie McBain, stepping into the role of top offensive defender quarterback on the power play and climbing into the upper echelon of WCHA point scoring.
One could look at senior forward Blake Geoffrion's 15 goals (a career high), senior forward Ben Street's comeback season and junior Ryan McDonagh anchoring the blue line, but it would take too long to highlight every skater having a strong season. Just note that head coach Mike Eaves has 15 forwards to choose his four lines from and has a fourth pair of defensemen (only three dress) who played over half the Badgers' games last year.
The team ranks second in the country in scoring, seventh in goals allowed and, oh yeah, has only one loss since the calendar rolled over from November to December.
But now comes the hard part, the part where a destiny is realized and the team goes from very good into truly great.
And it all starts with No. 1 Denver.
Last year the Badgers stood at a similar point, a bit later in the year, with a chance to dash to a top-10 finish and into the tournament.
""We were in a defining moment last year as well. We had six games at the end of the year that could have projected us into the top, and it was a series with Denver that was a turning point for us."" Eaves said. ""So once again, we're here.""
Wisconsin lost the first game when a last-second goal tied it and a turnover turned to a quick Pioneer score in the extra period. Before that weekend, the Badgers still had a chance to win the WCHA, but instead they dropped five of their last six in the regular season, losing to Denver once more in the conference tournament to miss the NCAAs by the slimmest of margins.
The DU-Wisconsin rivalry has recently been a quirky one, as both teams have been strong in each other's building and both coaches, Eaves and George Gwozdecky, were teammates on the Badgers' 1977 championship team.
So the question is, can the Badgers' take that step? If it's going to happen, this is the moment.
After Denver comes No. 4 Duluth, but the journey back to the top starts Friday night.
""We have more games after this weekend ... but [this series] is an important part because of where these teams stand,"" Eaves said.
In a few days at the Kohl Center, destiny awaits.
Think this weekend the Badgers can channel the 2008 team that upset Denver in the tournament? Let Ben know, or set him straight about something else at firstname.lastname@example.org.