The Badgers had set themselves up perfectly.
Sitting on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament, Wisconsin went into two hostile environments in Minneapolis and State College and earned two straight splits.
They returned home to face Ohio State, a team they had already swept, with the chance to virtually punch their ticket to their first national tournament in two years.
But instead of playing with hunger and intensity, Wisconsin deflated in front of the Kohl Center crowd and was out-fought by the Buckeyes for two straight games.
“It’s really disappointing,” senior defenseman Corbin McGuire said. “We worked really hard in the regular season to position ourselves accordingly and to not get the results that we wanted, in terms of seeding for the NCAA, it’s frustrating.”
But Wisconsin’s season isn’t over yet. They can still win the Big Ten Tournament and capture the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, a task that will be difficult, but certainly not impossible.
The Badgers (12-8-0 Big Ten, 19-14-1 overall) earned a No. 2 seed and a first-round bye, meaning they have to win just two games to lock up a spot in the tourney. Head coach Tony Granato hasn’t even considered the possibility of coming up just shy of the NCAA Tournament if they fall in the Big Ten Tournament this weekend.
“We can win this thing,” Granato said. “We’ve played well enough all year to earn a No. 2 spot in what I think is the best conference in college hockey this year.”
Wisconsin will take on No. 3 seed Ohio State (11-8-1, 20-10-6) in the semifinal game, a rematch of last weekend, where the Buckeyes dispensed of the Badgers.
UW will again have to focus its attention on OSU forward Mason Jobst, who torched Wisconsin for four points last weekend. He scored in the Buckeyes’ 6-3 win over Michigan State in the quarterfinal game Thursday.
But the Badgers may also need an attitude adjustment to get past Ohio State, which Granato said played like the more desperate team last weekend.
“They were on the outside looking in a week ago, now we’re on the outside looking in a week later,” Granato said. “So for us, it should mean more to us than them and that’s the way we’re gonna have to play.”
The Badgers return to Detroit for the first time since the Big Ten Tournament was in the Joe Louis Arena two years ago. For Granato, the historic building, which is in its final year, holds a lot of special memories from both his playing and coaching career in the NHL.
“When you walk in there you almost feel the history that’s surrounded that building with the players that have come through there,” Granato said.
His top moment was meeting Gordie Howe, also known as “Mr. Hockey,” when he was a player.
“Mr. Howe is just an unbelievable human being. I mean, unbelievable,” Granato said. “He’d talk to you and sit there and smile and laugh and just was as gracious as you could ever imagine. And funny, very funny.”
Once, when Granato was coaching in Pittsburgh, the Penguins were on a road trip and playing in the Joe. Howe was in the hallway and approached Granato, asking him if he could talk to Penguin superstar Sidney Crosby, who Mr. Hockey hadn’t caught up with in a while.
Granato arranged the meeting, taking Howe to the visitors' locker room to talk to Crosby. Granato sat there and listened to the entire discussion between two of the greatest hockey players in the world. But he has one regret.
“I didn’t take a picture. That was my own fault,” Granato said. “I sat there and listened to the whole conversation and I did not take a picture.”
The Badgers will look to channel some of the greatness that Howe and other Detroit all-timers left in the Joe. The puck drops at 3:30 p.m. and the game will be broadcasted on the Big Ten Network.
Wisconsin isn’t done yet, but they will need two wins to advance to the NCAA Tournament and put the cherry on top of an impressive turnaround campaign.
“To have 19 wins is a great thing to do, but we want a reward for it,” McGuire said. “To be where we are is nice for the regular season, but when push comes to shove, we want two trophies and it’s gonna start with this weekend here.”