“We don't want to think about what’s happened in the past. It’s a clean slate.”
As sophomore forward Max Zimmer alluded to earlier this week, Friday marks the start of essentially a new season for Wisconsin. After beating then-No. 1 Notre Dame, 5-0 and then taking five points from Penn State just over a month ago, the Badgers have gone 1-5 in their last six games and finished the regular season sixth in the Big Ten out of seven teams.
With its inconsistent play and poor finish to the year, Wisconsin has lost a chance at an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. But none of that matters now to the Badgers — win the Big Ten Tournament and they are in the NCAA Tournament; lose and their season is over.
Wisconsin (8-13-2-1 Big Ten, 14-17-3-0) travels to Ann Arbor this weekend to face No. 12 Michigan (11-10-3, 18-13-3) in a three-game series to open up the Big Ten Tournament. If Wisconsin wins two of the three away games against the Wolverines, it advances to the second round (a single away game next weekend), and if it wins that game it plays for the Big Ten title in a one-game series at the higher seeds’ home rink. Still, the Badgers, for now, are just looking to put the last month of the regular season behind them and focus on Friday.
“It has to be [viewed as a new season] because if we look back on the year we will be frustrated and disappointed,” head coach Tony Granato said. “Our expectations were high this year and we didn't play up to those standards. From week to week, we were a different team. Even game to game. Period to period. So we’re at the point in the season where we start even and everybody has a second chance. We have to take advantage of it and play great hockey.”
The Badgers are one of only three Big Ten teams, including No. 5 Notre Dame and No. 6 Ohio State, to have beaten every team in the conference at least once. Accordingly, despite playing under .400 hockey in Big Ten play, UW feels confident that it can make a run and win the tournament.
“Our confidence has always been there. It goes away sometimes after tough weekends, but we know we can beat any team, especially in the Big Ten,” junior forward Will Johnson said. “We’ve proved it. We know going into Michigan is going to be tough playing away, but we know we can beat them. We know what we have to do.”
Michigan is the only team in the conference that the Badgers have a winning record against this year. Wisconsin is 2-1-1 against UM, and, as such, feel that Michigan is a great matchup for the first round of the tournament.
“If you look back at the way we have played at certain points of the season, we should feel confident. Games against Michigan were all really solid games,” Granato said. “We should feel like we can go in there and win. We just did it a few weeks ago. We played two great games and lost the game we probably played better in.”
Yet, while Wisconsin has had some success against Michigan and the rest of the conference, UW is the only team in the Big Ten to have both beaten every other conference team and also lost to every Big Ten team. And that inconsistency does create some nerves going into the weekend, especially for its seniors.
“It’s a little scary now. This could be my last two games, three games,” senior defenseman Jake Linhart said. “There’s definitely nerves right before it starts, but I think everyone's ready to play and they have been in this position in some capacity before so everyone should be fine. I sometimes think about [the possibility of these being my last games] late at night, but gameday I don't think about it at all.”
Like Linhart said, come gametime, the nerves seem to disappear. Instead, when the Badgers arrive at Yost Ice Area, they will be focused and determined.
Wisconsin feels like it is better than its record. It feels like its talent exceeds its results. And come Friday, it will be ready to prove that it is much better than it played in the regular season.
“We’ve been ranked as high as six or seven in the country and we know that we can play with anyone. We beat Notre Dame 5-0. We haven't played our best games over the last month or so, so we definitely have a whole lot to prove,” Zimmer said.
“Given our last three weeks or two weeks, there’s a little bit of a revenge we need to have in our attitude,” Johnson said. “That’s not who we are. We need to show who we really are. We need to show who Badger hockey is.”
Puck drop is set for 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and again for 6:30 p.m. on Sunday if necessary.