Quantum Leap

The end came all too suddenly for an overachieving Wisconsin team. But the Badgers’ overtime loss to Maine in the East Regional final on Saturday conveniently linked hope for the future and the problems of today.

The Badgers were a goal away from the Frozen Four, and had they been the ones that scored in overtime, it would have furthered a remarkable turnaround from coach Mike Eaves’ tumultutous first season. Still, their season was one of reaching higher than many expected.

And with 15 of the 20 players who dressed for the final game of the season being either freshmen or sophomores, it would appear the Badgers have a solid base to build on. That’s what Wisconsin had to have this season to continue Eaves’ rebuilding of the program, and the young Badgers came through.

But the UW was a goal away — a statement that gets right to the key issue for the offensively challenged Badgers. The 2-1 overtime loss to the Black Bears was the 22nd time in 43 games this season that the Badgers scored two goals or fewer.

Wisconsin had 37 shots on goal against Maine and got only one goal past Jimmy Howard. So went the season for the Badgers, who averaged 2.86 goals per game, middle of the pack in college hockey.

Maybe that makes what they did this season even more impressive. Without big-time scoring threats, they finished third in the WCHA after being picked by the coaches for eighth. They had a 15-game unbeaten streak that set them up for this experience. They had the WCHA’s best goaltender, who gave them plenty of chances this season.

They had a defense-first formula that they followed, and more often than not, it worked.

“I’m just really proud of my teammates,” senior defenseman and captain Dan Boeser said. “From where we came from, especially us seniors, it’s really unbelievable and it’s a testament to the kind of people those guys are.”

The UW players reported lowered heads in their dressing room following the loss — their first in a school-record 14 overtime games this season — but Eaves said they weren’t necessary.

“One thing I said to our team at the end of the game was, ‘Ask yourself: Did you play to win or did you play to lose?'” Eaves said. “They put their hearts on their sleeves, wore them out there and played to win. Typical paradox of life: [Friday] night we were all smiles and tonight we’re at the other end of the spectrum. But I think we can hold our heads up high and move on.”

The Badgers lost twice to Maine this season, the first time on Oct. 11 in a season-opening tournament in Omaha, Neb. But the differences in those games shows just how much the Badgers grew in the last five-plus months.

In October, it was a 6-2 decision for the Black Bears in a game that sent the Badgers home with some of the first lessons they built upon over the course of the season. On Saturday, the Badgers arguably played better than Maine.

The growth in this year’s team came in the quick maturation of the team’s rookies. It probably was a sign that in the first game of the season, freshman Robbie Earl and Andrew Joudrey each had a goal and an assist. They each played big roles the rest of the way — Joudrey as the top-line center and Earl as one of the top goal scorers.

Although defenseman Ryan Suter was beaten on the final play of his freshman season, he became one of the best young defensemen in the WCHA as the year went on, living up to the high expectations that were placed upon him as a first-round NHL draft pick.

Suter’s return next season is in question. He has said he would wait until after the season finished to decide whether to turn pro. But while the freshmen played a key role in the 2003-04 season and figure to do so in future seasons, the past few months for the Badgers likely will be remembered for a 15-game unbeaten streak and the play of goaltender Bernd Brückler.

Wisconsin was 11-0-4 in a stretch that included victories over two-time defending national champion Minnesota, Frozen Four qualifier Denver and a road sweep of Michigan and Michigan State.

Brückler was the biggest reason Wisconsin got back into the national spotlight after a 13-23-4 season a year ago. The junior goaltender etched his name into the fabled UW goaltending record books en route to being named the WCHA’s first-team goalie and the most outstanding player of the East Regional.

He finished the season with a 2.09 goals against average and a .928 save percentage. Both shattered the school records at “Goaltender U” — the old marks were 2.23 and .920, respectively.

He was the centerpiece of the team and one of the main sources from which it drew strength.

“I look back at a good season, and we’ve come a long way as a young team,” Brückler said. “And we’ve got a lot of guys coming back.”

Brückler said he plans on returning next season, although there has been speculation the Philadelphia Flyers, who own his draft rights, may be interested in pursuing him now.

Wisconsin, which finished the season 22-13-8, was just 2-4-1 in its last seven games and missed the WCHA Final Five after losing its first-round series at home to Alaska-Anchorage.

“We could have come here and just laid down and played dead,” said Boeser, who scored the overtime goal in a 1-0 victory over Ohio State last Friday. “But we bonded together as a unit of one and came back. This team has just done some unbelievable things this year. We did some unbelievable things in this tournament as well.”

The Badgers worked together last summer with thoughts of their 13-23-4 season in mind. This summer, they’ll prepare with the sting of knowing they were so close to a landmark moment for an evolving team.

“It’s going to take a little while, and a little break is going to be good for everybody, to let this sink in,” Bruckler said. “But I think regrouping is definitely going to be a lot easier, with us knowing we were a young team, we were hungry. We were this close — one shot could have gone the other way and we would have been in Boston.

“We’re not going to play any ‘if’ games. That’s the way it is. Sports is like that. We’re going to go on and we’re going to have a hard summer. We’re going to stay together. We’re going to work out together. We’re going to stick together as a team. And we’re going to have good leadership next year, I think, and guys are going to step up to the plate and get the job done.”