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Friday, April 19, 2024
Badgers were unbeatable at times, but inconsistency doomed title run
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Badgers were unbeatable at times, but inconsistency doomed title run

One period through Wisconsin's 5-0 loss in the national title game, I could only think one thing: We've seen this team before. After 20 minutes of hockey, with Boston College holding a not-insurmountable 1-0 lead, it was clear that if this version of the Badger hockey team stuck around, the program would not see its seventh national title this year.

The team that took the ice at Ford Field Saturday night was not the one that dominated RIT two days earlier, the one that fought its way to a trip to the Frozen Four or the one that blew teams out of the water with its flashy offense. Instead, this was the one that was lethargic in trying to hold the offensive zone and unable to clear the defensive one, the bunch that let a great defense and solid goalie shut them down from the first shift and the one that would look like anything but national title contenders when they inevitably sputtered and lost.

We got a glimpse of Wisconsin at its worst Saturday night, and the reason so many fans left Detroit disappointed was the team's inconsistency. Lurking in the back of every Badger fan's mind during the past few weeks was the fear that their team could play their worst hockey on the biggest stage, and that's exactly what we saw in the national title game.

All season, it seemed like Wisconsin would come out one of two ways for any given game. One was the reason they earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and the other is the reason Boston College fans are celebrating their fourth national title.

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The first Badger team featured a balanced scoring attack that could get production from all four lines—they could torch a team from the start, or, if they had to face a tough defense or quality opponent, they would stay patient and eventually break through. That's the one we saw most of the season, whether it was dominating New Hampshire or taking three points from then-top-ranked Denver.

When that team took the ice, there was no stopping them. Maybe a good goaltender (the Pioneers' Marc Cheverie, Michigan Tech's Kevin Genoe or Vermont's Rob Madore) could hold them at bay for a while, but with Wisconsin's depth, there was no way they would be denied all game.

That's the team that crushed RIT in the national semifinal, but it's certainly not the one that showed up against the Eagles.

Saturday's team is the one that showed up from time to time, often in big games and just frequently enough to make fans nervous. That version of the Badgers got frustrated if it couldn't get pucks to the back of the net within the first few minutes of the game and never really threatened its opponents.

We saw that team in Duluth, when Wisconsin got off on the wrong foot with a pair of softie goals against and never recovered, sputtering on offense and failing to pressure the Bulldogs. Throughout the NCAA Tournament, Badger fans worried that would be the team that showed up and cost them a chance at a title, and those fears were proven correct.

Wisconsin got some good pressure in the opening minutes of the first period, but after that we heard little aside from the occasional scramble in front of the net or broken play. The offense never had a chance to set up shop in Boston College's zone—the team we saw hold the zone for minutes at a time was nowhere to be found, replaced by the one that only managed weak shots, if any at all.

This is not to say that the Eagles lucked into a title. They played a fantastic season in a tough conference and were, far and away, the best team on the ice Saturday.

If Wisconsin had played well we would have seen an epic battle between two college hockey titans. Instead we got a demonstration of what happens when a team does not come to play in the biggest game of the year and gets steamrolled by one that did.

Despite the frustration with how it ended, however, we have to consider this an incredibly successful year for Wisconsin hockey. From the playoff atmosphere at the Kohl Center during the Denver series to the awesome experience of hockey in Camp Randall Stadium to the team's run in the Frozen Four, this was a great season, and next October cannot come soon enough.

But whenever we remember this team and this year, as is true for any sports fan who sees their team lose in a championship game, we will always wonder what could have been. In the Badgers' case this season, we will always wonder what we would have seen if the team we saw most of the year showed up in its biggest game.

Why did the Badgers fall so flat in the national title game? E-mail Nico at savidgewilki@dailycardinal.com.

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