The last time the No. 16 Badgers (12-6-0 Big Ten, 19-12-1 overall) met the No. 15 Buckeyes (9-8-1, 18-10-6), Ohio State erased a two-goal deficit with just two minutes left to force an overtime period in Madison Square Garden. Junior forward Cameron Hughes saved Wisconsin from a collapse, though, slamming home the game-winning goal and giving the Badgers a sweep.
This time, the series will mean a bit more for both teams as it may operate as a de facto play-in game for the NCAA Tournament.
“Three of the Big Ten teams are in, in my opinion,” head coach Tony Granato said. “I really think the fourth one deserves it, but it’s gonna have to play out in a unique way to get four teams from one conference in.”
With Minnesota and Penn State as virtual locks for the tournament, that definite third spot will come down to Ohio State and Wisconsin. After earning two tough road splits against the Golden Gophers and the Nittany Lions, Wisconsin has put itself in a position to earn an at-large bid.
But a misstep on home ice this weekend against the Buckeyes could vault OSU past the Badgers in the eyes of the selection committee. For Wisconsin to avoid that misstep and take a big leap forward in earning its first tournament berth in two years, the Badgers will have to slow down the dynamic duo of Nick Schilkey and Mason Jobst.
Jobst, who earned the conference’s First Star last week with two goals and three assists over the weekend, was dominant in his last game against Wisconsin. He assisted on both Buckeye goals and generated a number of quality chances throughout the game.
“I think he’s an offensive player that recognizes offensive opportunities to be aggressive,” Granato said. “He’s a smart, intelligent player.”
For this series, he will be joined by the Big Ten’s leading goal-scorer Schilkey, who sat out with injury the last time the two squads met. He has an impressive 26 goals in 34 games.
Granato said his team will have to be aware of those two on the ice and that the forwards helping out defensively will be key to the Badgers’ success this weekend.
It’s a weekend with high stakes for a team that’s finished in the cellar of the conference the last two seasons. They still have an outside chance at a share of the Big Ten title if they can sweep the Buckeyes and get a little help from Michigan State. Wisconsin sits three points behind Minnesota and if the the last-place Spartans can steal a game from the Golden Gophers this weekend, the Badgers will have done a 180-degree turn.
For guys like senior defensemen Corbin McGuire, who was around for the worst period in Wisconsin hockey history, the turnaround and success they’ve had this season has been special.
“It shows a lot about the leadership that we have in our room to get the program to where it’s at now,” McGuire said. “It speaks volumes to every single guy we have in that room that is willing to put in the work, to stay with the process and stick with it. And to get the results we are having now is all because of that.”
The Badgers will look to make a statement to the selection committee this weekend, knowing that two wins could very well punch their ticket to the tournament. The puck drops at the Kohl Center at 7 p.m. both nights.
“Everything is in our hands right now,” McGuire said. “We take care of business and things will fall into place for us.”