Wisconsin men's hockey coach Mike Eaves was walking around the Kohl Center recently when he ran into longtime electrician Ed Walsh, and something Walsh said has stuck with Eaves as the Badgers (3-4-3) prepare to host No. 9 Denver (6-3-1) this weekend.
"He said, 'well you beat North Dakota, the No. 1 team in the country. I guess that means you can beat anybody now,'" Eaves recalled. "We took that message to the team and we set a new bar for ourselves."
"I think that that's something we're going to go after every weekend now after the way we played there."
Bolstered by the confidence-building win, the Badgers bring a new mindset into this weekend's series against a Pioneers team that is unbeaten in its last four games and ranks in the top-20, nationally, in both scoring offense (3.30) and defense (2.20). They are a "determined" and "aggressive" team in the mold of its head coach, Jim Montgomery, according to Eaves.
Wisconsin and the Pioneers met last season at Magness Arena—a 3-2 loss for the Badgers.
"They’re ranked for a reason and it’s another good test for us," Eaves said.
If Wisconsin is going to pull off another upset, it will likely have to do so without top line center sophomore Cameron Hughes. The Edmonton, Alberta native is considered day-to-day with a shoulder injury sustained during the North Dakota series, and is doubtful for this weekend. Hughes has been centering a line with junior forward Grant Besse and freshman forward Luke Kunin which has 17 points in the last six games, including a goal and four points for Hughes.
Losing your top center is never easy, but Eaves said the Badgers' new-found plethora of options down the middle should help soften the blow. In addition to sophomores Adam Rockwood and Ryan Wagner, both Besse and Kunin are capable of filling a top six center role.
"Our depth really helps there," Eaves said. "Nobody is going to replace Cameron, but we have options that are better than what we've had in the past."
Even with Hughes, the task at hand would be daunting. The Badgers improving defense is charged with slowing down a Denver offense that has scored three more goals in nine of 10 games this season and is among the 10 best possession teams in the country.
Through 10 games, Wisconsin is allowing 2.8 goals against per game, which is down from 3.33 at the same point a season ago—a drastic improvement Eaves credits to the new scheme his first year staff has brought in.
"It took time, but I think we’re seeing good things," Eaves said. "It’s one of the reasons we’re having a little more success now, because we’re playing better without the puck in our own zone."
Celebrating the "Backdoor Badgers"
Wisconsin will honor its 1981 national title team on Saturday night. The team will reunited and be recognized with a special video and introduction during the first intermission.
The 1981 team was the program's third national champion and earned the "Backdoor Badgers" nickname by grabbing an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament after losing in the WCHA playoffs. They went on to win the national title as a No. 4 seed, which made them the lowest-seeded team ever to do so. The Badgers defeated all three Div. I conference champions to claim the title, including rival Minnesota, 6-3, in the championship.
Considering the unique set of circumstances, it is unlikely college hockey will ever see another team like the 1981 Badgers.
"I'm sure after that there will be no more of that," Eaves said of the team's NCAA bid. "It's over your body of work now. And I get that will never happen again, but they've got that label and they will hold on to it for the rest of their days."