ST. PAUL, Minn. — Most teams don’t have the luxury of taking lessons away from games once the postseason starts. Usually the focus is just keeping the season alive.
But some teams, like Big Ten tournament champion Wisconsin, are assured an NCAA tournament berth regardless of conference tournament results.
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The Badgers learned how hard it is to end a team’s season, and also how to battle back when the other squad comes out more desperate.
Despite falling behind by two goals twice, Wisconsin outlasted Ohio State for a 5-4 overtime win in the Big Ten championship game to grab the inaugural tournament trophy.
“It’s hard to explain to young men — we’re trying to end their season, that’s a very difficult thing to do,” UW coach Mike Eaves said. “They were playing at a higher desperate rate. We were playing for a championship, they were playing for their lives. There was a gap there.”
Down 2-0 in the first period, UW got a power-play goal from Jake McCabe with 23 seconds left in the stanza to cut the deficit in half. The Badgers converted on another man advantage to tie it at 2-2 on Zulinick’s goal 11:24 into the second.
Ohio State went up 4-2 in the third on Tanner Fritz’s shot from the right circle with 13:08 left in the third, but Wisconsin got two goals in the next 48 seconds to tie the game.
Mark Zengerle knocked home a loose puck for the overtime winner, 7:48 into the extra period.
“We came into this tournament this weekend — we knew we were gonna play next weekend probably no matter what,” Zengerle said. “But that’s not the attitude we had. The attitude we came in with, we wanted to win.”
While the Badgers probably would have liked a less-stressful win, there were positives to be found in the resiliency Wisconsin showed.
Jefferson Dahl knocked home a rebound on a long shot 20 seconds after Fritz’s goal to make it 4-3, and Zengerle passed to Nic Kerdiles along the goal line, and the sophomore found Tyler Barnes in front of the net 28 seconds later to tie the game.
“Sometimes it might be tough going down two with seven minutes left,” Zengerle said. “They [Dahl's line] came out right away, and they got that next goal, 4-3, and that gained a little more confidence in our group on the bench. I think the rest of the game, we were buzzing.”
After tying the game, Wisconsin seemed to take control of the matchup, and the Badgers’ resiliency was rewarded with a conference tournament title for the second straight year.
Eaves compared the playoffs to climbing Mount Everest, with an increasing difficulty as the postseason goes on.
“Games get tougher,” Eaves said. “Tonight was a tough game. We had to overcome some being behind. Those are good lessons to put in our hip pocket as we continue going into next weekend, because the games are all gonna be pretty much similar to this.”
The difference now is, there are no more guarantees. Should the Badgers fall behind in the NCAA tournament, it won’t just be a trophy on the line.
That being said, getting the actual experience of falling behind twice in a playoff game and rallying could be invaluable to Wisconsin going forward.
“It prepares us for the next level,” Eaves said. “It prepares us for less oxygen in the air as we climb this mountain. We can talk about it, but the fact that they lived through it and handled it, you can’t replace that with anything.”