Big Ten Hockey Tournament 2014: Wisconsin taking same focus, different path for championship

Wisconsin is one win away from its second consecutive conference tournament title

The Badgers have won its last 7 games at Xcel Energy Center. This year the search for a second consecutive conference tournament title is different.

ST. PAUL- One of the ongoing postgame procedures is that in a tournament like the Big Ten conference hockey tournament, the losing team says its remarks first followed by the winners. Sometimes it can be tough. Seasons are coming to an end this time of year and reflecting 10-15 minutes after a loss can make for a range of emotions.

It's been a while since the Badgers have gone first at Xcel Energy Center.

Going back to the WCHA Final Five and 2010 West Regional, Wisconsin has won its last 7 games in St. Paul. The last, a 2-1 win Friday over Penn State, sees the Badgers one win away from its second consecutive conference tournament title. Despite being the fifth win against the Nittany Lions in five tries, it didn't come easy.

"Any team in our league and around college hockey, it's to beat five games in a row," said Wisconsin forward Michael Mersch, who scored both goals after trailing 1-0. "(Penn State) put in a good effort every single time, what was it, four out of five of them were one-goal games. They're a good team and had a good effort tonight. But I'm glad we came out on top."

Last year, the Badgers were in a different boat in addition to a different conference. Coming into the WCHA Final Five as the sixth seed out of six teams, head coach Mike Eaves' squad had to win three games in three days.

Anything less meant the end of the season.

That isn't the case this year. Wisconsin, moving from the WCHA to newly formed Big Ten, finished second in the conference and earned a first round bye. There is no do-or-die. Wisconsin entered this weekend already in the NCAA Tournament. While Penn State played the equivalent of one and a half games Thursday in a double overtime win, UW were able to rest. It took time to adjust to game speed against a team that had just played; an advantage it used against St. Cloud State in 2013.

"We were working hard to get that first round bye, as coach (Eaves) said, it's tough to come back, win three games in a row," Mersch said. "Especially in a tournament like this, when you have great teams in it."

However, the fresh legs paid off this time around for the Badgers. Mersch and his teammates continued to play a fast pace as Penn State faded. Eaves was able to get secondary contributions from his team.

"We've been looking for contributions, secondary contributions from Jefferson Dahl's line and they got a little bit of a start at Michigan State (last weekend. Tonight they carried and got a big first goal for us," he said Friday.

Wisconsin's experience in 2013 can help in 2014. The Badgers tonight play Ohio State tonight for the Big Ten championship, a team whose path to the title game has involved two close games in two days. The Buckeyes need to win Saturday to get the Big Ten's automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.

The majority of the Badgers know where OSU has been.

At the same time, the team's focus remains similar with a first round bye than it was with a desperate WCHA run. Wisconsin may not need the title, but it wants the hardware and doesn't want to go first after the game.

"It doesn't change too much," goaltender Joel Rumpel said. "We're still playing like it could be our last game. We won the last WCHA. It's how it was and we want to win the first Big Ten Tournament. So not much has changed. We're still playing like if we lose, we're dead.

"So that's how I see it, anyway."

--

Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter --

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