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Saturday, April 20, 2024
Badgers on their way to Frozen Four in Detroit

Mitchell and Smith: Forwards John Mitchell (left) and Craig Smith soak in the moment during the West regional round.

Badgers on their way to Frozen Four in Detroit

ST. PAUL, Minn.—It didn't seem to matter whether they started fast or struggled at the start. Both times they took the ice, the games came down to tense, close final periods as playoff hockey often does. And at the end of the weekend, after dealing with a familiar foe and a team just lucky to be there, they finally reached a goal that was both aimed for at season's start and in some ways expected.

Yes, the Badgers are headed back to the Frozen Four.

It took a 3-2 win over Vermont and a 5-3 victory against conference rival St. Cloud State to give Wisconsin the NCAA Tournament Western Regional Title at the Xcel Energy Center.That punched their ticket to Detroit, earning the second trip to college hockey's final weekend in head coach Mike Eaves' tenure, and the first in four seasons.

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Twenty minutes in, however, the Badgers did not have the look of a title contender.

After the game was delayed 42 minutes by the other semifinal going to double overtime, Wisconsin was sluggish opening against Vermont, losing battles for the puck and getting outshot by the last at-large team in the tournament field. The Catamounts exited the period with a 2-1 lead, courtesy of a pair of gritty scores.

""We got the first goal, which is certainly what we wanted, but we weren't playing the way we wanted. Part of it was Vermont, part of it was the wait, part of it was, I think, the nerves,"" Eaves said. ""Tonight is the semifinals, it's game seven. I don't care what you say, the kids know that. That's why it was pleasing to us as a coach that they settled down.""

What the Badgers did was more than settle down, putting 13 more pucks on net than Vermont and coming back with two goals. The last one came when senior Hobey Baker finalist Blake Geoffrion slapped through a behind-the-back pass from freshman defenseman Justin Schultz.

UW junior goaltender Scott Gudmandson turned away the rest of Vermont's shots, and his team held on after a tight third period.

The next evening seemed like a mirror image of the first, as the Badgers were the early aggressors, scoring three times in the first 15 minutes, forcing Husky coach Bob Motzko to replace his starting goaltender, freshman Mike Lee. There was a hint of redemption in that first stretch, since Lee shut Wisconsin out just eight days earlier, denying it a chance at the conference tournament title.

""We were flat. The first period was just a struggle for us,"" said Motzko, whose team played over 80 minutes of hockey the night before. ""We felt it on the bench, our guys felt it, our tanks were down.""

Both Gudmandson and Husky replacement Dan Dunn locked in as the game went into a scoring lull, but in the third St. Cloud made its final bid to bounce back from a 3-1 hole. Twice the Huskies scored to move within one, and twice the Badgers answered within three minutes to dissipate the momentum.

""Responding like we did was pivotal,"" Eaves said. ""I think that's been a battle cry all year, and I know most coaches will use it: We need a response. It's how we respond to this moment right now.""

That response meant Wisconsin's 11th Frozen Four appearance in program history.

This season opened with high expectations, as Eaves had his first ""upperclassman team"" since the 2006 title team. Seniors scored four of the five goals against St. Cloud, and Geoffrion, one of the team's tri-captains, was named the region's MVP.

When asked to look back, senior John Mitchell, who scored two of the seniors' goals, said it started months before the first puck was even dropped.

""We've been in here every summer, at Wisconsin in Madison working out,"" he said. ""Just the hours that we've put in and then all throughout the season, I'm just so proud of every one of these guys, it means a lot.""

This trek is not over yet, and Wisconsin will move on to face its next test Thursday against RIT, which knocked off Denver and New Hampshire to become the surprise team of the tournament. But just getting as far as they had allowed the Badgers a moment to savor and look back on before turning forward.

""It feels incredible,"" Geoffrion said after the game. ""I know a lot of seniors have worked since our freshman year coming in ... The opportunity to possibly go to the national championship game, it's an incredible feeling right now. Job's not done yet though.""

For a team with such high expectations for itself, it rarely is.

 

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