BEN CLASSON/Herald photoThe low drone of the Zamboni resurfacing the ice was the only thing that could be heard in the otherwise deserted Kohl Center. Long gone were the members of the Wisconsin men’s hockey team, who after a hard practice changed and went on with their Wednesday routine. But high above the ice, on the JumboTron, the team’s new perspective on the season remained: Badgers 4, Pioneers 0.While the scoreboard may be wishful thinking on the part of UW as it prepares for the actual game Saturday, it is a reminder that the Badgers plan on taking advantage of the second chance — an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament — they were given. The fact that they earned it against Denver is somewhat ironic.“We should have a group of guys that are really hungry and anxious to redeem themselves,” senior captain Davis Drewiske said. “There are a lot of people who think we don’t deserve to be here, so we have a lot to prove.”A three-game losing streak that first eliminated the chance of home ice for Wisconsin in the WCHA Tournament and then knocked them out of the same tournament, coupled with a sub-.500 record (15-16-7) indicate that the team didn’t exactly storm into this weekend’s Midwest regional at the Kohl Center.“That doesn’t matter now,” Drewiske said. “We’re in.”By contrast, Denver (26-13-1) has won four straight games and took home the WCHA Tournament Championship trophy in the process.Again, UW coach Mike Eaves said, how the team got to the regional and the success Denver has had against Wisconsin at the Kohl Center (11-1-2) don’t really matter. It’s a new season.“Everybody is 0-0,” Eaves said during a press conference Monday. “There are no wins and no losses, and it’s purely a 1-0 mentality now.”Assistant captain Ben Street said taking one game at a time has been a challenge for Wisconsin, which has fallen into “Friday night funks” on several occasions this season.“You can’t look past any games,” Street said. “Sometimes we weren’t very good Friday and we came back Saturday. If we do that (this weekend), there is no more Saturday anymore, in this case, Sunday.”What’s more, UW will be playing just its fifth game in 35 days Saturday, and based on its last performance following a week off — the first game of the WCHA Tournament versus St. Cloud State two weeks ago — there could be some rust in the axles. Knowing what’s at stake, Eaves put his team on the ice more often and longer this week. But even practicing hard isn’t the same as playing in a game.“This is the time of year where you just want to play, you don’t really want to practice,” Drewiske said.Beyond getting the rust out of their games, the Badgers devoted large portions of practice to special teams. Much of Wisconsin’s success this season derives from the power play, while Denver has been extremely reliant on its penalty kill, which ranks fourth nationally. And in this single-elimination tournament, the man-advantage could be the difference.“Their penalty kill and our power play is going to be a huge part of the game,” Drewiske said.Defensively, Drewiske said, Denver is tough. Goaltender Peter Mannino came on of late and has allowed a trim 2.19 goals per 60 minutes.“They’ve tightened up the ship a little bit and they’re going to be a hard team to play against,” Drewiske said.Part of the reason why Wisconsin was put in such a difficult situation — having to hold out hope that the pieces would fall into place and it would earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since winning the championship in 2006 — was a controversial loss in early January against Denver.Had forward Matt Ford’s game-tying goal before the final horn sounded counted, the Badgers might have been a shoe-in for the postseason. Wisconsin got a bit of revenge the following night against Denver, winning 7-2, but a win this weekend would be even sweeter.Playing before the Kohl Center crowd for the first time since mid-February will also be a nice change of pace for Wisconsin.“It’s nice that we don’t have to travel, we get to sleep in our own beds and just focus on hockey,” freshman Ryan McDonagh said.If Wisconsin wins Saturday, it would move on to play either Princeton or North Dakota in the Regional Final Sunday.“We’re playing hockey this late in the season; we’re just happy to have that chance,” Street said.
In the middle of April, with deliciously warm days and baseball finally getting in full swing, hockey simply is not on the radar.But much to the contrary, the NHL playoffs are upon us. And oh boy, what a post season it has been so far.Between unbelievable upsets, buzzer-beaters for overtime and the utter amount of overtime games that have take place thus far, the Stanley Cup playoffs are quickly turning into an event that shouldn’t be missed.Here are a few reasons why.No frontrunnerThrough Saturday only two matchups had a 2-0 lead – both in favor of the underdog.Heading into the playoffs, Vancouver was widely expected to be playing for the title, earning the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference after finishing the regular season at a 51-22-9 clip – the best regular season record in 2011-12. But the Canucks couldn’t seem to get enough offense going their first two games, taking a 4-2 loss in both game one and two to the Los Angeles Kings.Similarly, the Penguins were also a favorite for the cup before the postseason was underway, and yet through the first two games, they were foiled twice by Flyers’ comebacks. Game two was especially concerning for Pittsburgh after it allowed seven goals over the course of the second and third period, giving Philadelphia an 8-5, game two victory and a 2-0 lead at the time. Heading into the playoffs with the most imposing offensive front between Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin the Penguins looked impressive, but the duo was all but silenced through those first two games, which coupled with a shocking lack of defense, rendered the Penguins socially awkward.Every other series that played two games through Saturday ended in a series tie.The New York Rangers, who earned the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, couldn’t close out game two against an Ottawa Senators team they should have easily handled. With just over four minutes left in regulation, Senators left winger Nick Foligno slapped in a rebound, beating Ranger goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to send the game into overtime. Lundqvist – who is largely considered the best netminder in the league this season – couldn’t fend off the revived Senators for long as they evened the series at 1-1 off a Chris Neil backhanded goal.It may only be a few games into each series, but so far it is safe to throw any predictions out the window as no team has stood out far and above the rest.Hockey essentials: fights and overtimeOne thing that certainly sets hockey apart from every other major sport is the fighting. And the playoffs have had no shortage of fights.For example, in the Rangers-Senators game Saturday night, both teams lost a player to game misconduct a mere 2:15 into the first period.Ottawa’s Matt Carkner hunted down New York’s Brian Boyle (in retaliation for an incident in game one), which resulted in Carkner and Rangers forward Brandon Dubinsky being sent to the locker room for the remainder of the game.On his way out, Dubinsky overturned a Gatorade cooler out of pure frustration in a move that showed his deep disagreement with the refs.Just about every matchup – whether a deep-rooted rivalry or not – has ended up in fisticuffs on numerous occasions, rendering this post season one of the most high-strung affairs the sports world has seen in quite some time. (Although the Indians-Royals bench-clearing brawl Saturday night could give the NHL an infinitesimal run for its money.)But beyond the tantamount of fights that’s making these playoffs more intense and interesting than ever, the games are closer than ever before.Through Saturday, out of 15 games played, seven went into overtime – two of which went into double over time. Only the Kings-Canucks, Predators-Red Wings and Devils-Panthers avoided overtime play, as of Saturday.Badgers everywhereDespite not laying claim to its own NHL team, Wisconsin is well represented with 10 players across seven different teams.Recent Badgers forward Derek Stepan and defenseman Ryan McDonagh – who both skated with Wisconsin in its 2010 national championship run – are both with the New York Rangers, who currently face the Ottawa Senators and McDonagh’s former UW roommate, forward Kyle Turris (’07-’08). The most recent Badger to leave for the NHL, forward Craig Smith along with defenseman Ryan Suter (’03-’04), currently hold a 2-1 series lead after Sunday’s win with the Nashville Predators over the Detroit Red Wings.St. Louis Blues goaltender Brian Elliott, who anchored Wisconsin’s 2006 national championship team, squares off with his former teammate, forward Joe Pavelski and forward Brad Winchester (’99-’03) and the San Jose Sharks.Finally, defenseman Dave Drewiske (’05-’08) and the Kings are on a strong upset run against the Vancouver Canucks, while forward Jack Skille (’05-’07) and the Florida Panthers are looking to do the same against the New Jersey Devils.Essentially, if you have no current NHL loyalties, picking a team based on your favorite Badgers isn’t a bad idea, especially given how tight the playoffs are this year.Overall, the intensity of this year’s playoffs, even a few games in, is too palpable to ignore. With such a tight race, it’s currently a free-for-all – any team currently has as good of a chance as the next for the Stanley Cup.Kelly is a junior majoring in journalism. Which former Badgers have the best chance for the cup? Let her know on Twitter @kellymerickson or at email@example.com