Early woes a distant memory as Wisconsin keeps rolling into NCAA tournament

This season’s Wisconsin Badgers have gone through many rough patches, but taking home the Broadmoor Trophy as WCHA playoff champions in UW’s final season in the league has soothed the Badgers’ aches immeasurably.

A controversial suspension, injuries and the departure of an assistant coach combined to leave UW having to navigate very choppy waters during a first half of the season in which the Badgers had a 2-7-5 record through their first 14 games.

2013 WCHA Final Five

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From the third weekend of December on, though, UW became a different team on the ice. Pucks started to find their way into opponents’ nets at a much quicker rate, and a 20-5-2 record from Dec. 13 onward was capped Saturday night at the Xcel Energy Center by a 3-2 WCHA playoff final victory over Colorado College.

Even better, Wisconsin earned the WCHA’s automatic bid for the NCAA tournament, a competition that was far from a given for the Badgers to get into until the final horn sounded Saturday.

“For us, we get to play another weekend,” Badgers coach Mike Eaves said after wrapping up his first WCHA playoff title in his 11 seasons as UW’s bench boss. “And it didn’t look like that at the beginning of the season.

“It’s a great thing for these young men because they played for each other, learned some lessons the hard way. There were some silver linings that happened earlier in the season, and they used them to their advantage and stayed together through tough times, and it’s served us well. And we are where we are today because of those lessons that we learned.”

Injuries this season to upperclassman stalwarts like Mark Zengerle, Derek Lee and Frankie Simonelli took a toll on the Badgers this season. The team’s woes arguably started, however, when it was announced in October that freshman forward Nic Kerdiles would be suspended by the NCAA for the entire season for receiving improper benefits leading up to last summer’s NHL Entry Draft.

The suspension was later cut down to only the first third of the season, allowing Kerdiles to return for UW’s 1-1 tie at Denver on Nov. 30. Assistant coach Bill Butters left the team to join a ministry serving hockey players while Kerdiles was on suspension, which only made things worse in the Badgers’ locker room and, perhaps, on the ice.

UW’s play was transformed when Kerdiles returned, though, and the entire team’s performances improved by leaps and bounds. Kerdiles himself hasn’t been a goal-scoring dynamo as such this season, but he did pick up his 10th goal and 22nd assist of the season Saturday night to help lift his team past CC.

Senior forward Ryan Little remarked after Saturday’s triumph that, in the season’s earlier throes, the overall spirit in the UW camp had been very much on the low side. In the second half of the season, though, he said going to the rink — any rink the Badgers have played on — has been a much more pleasurable experience than it had been earlier in the 2012-13 campaign.

“It’s been busy, it’s been challenging, but it’s been a lot of fun,” Eaves said. “I think that when you start winning, it’s contagious in the locker room, and it’s a lot of fun to be around each other and at the rink, so that’s kind of been the basis for us these past few weeks: Keep winning, keep going, keep rolling.”

Eaves focused after Saturday’s triumph on the differences he’s seen in his entire team’s performances on the ice from the first half of the season to the last.

“Things started to come together, but they did so because I think we were very cognizant of what we were going through,” Eaves said. “There were some tough choices to be made when we were going through those tough times.

“Every time we came to the rink, every time we lost a game — and we weren’t playing terrible, we just couldn’t put the puck in the net. Part of that was that our goal scorers were out, but it was about making choices every day.

“We had a choice: We can either put our heads in the sand or we can come back and go to work and try to make this thing better.”

No one would argue that things have, indeed, gotten better for the Badgers, and they largely have their WCHA playoff run to thank for that.

Now 22-12-7 on the season, Wisconsin is tied for 14th in the PairWise Rankings and as such isn’t likely to earn a favorable draw in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

The most important thing right now, however, is that the Badgers are officially into the competition and are entering it on a high note.