The Wisconsin Badgers men’s hockey team puts the regular season ranking behind them to compete in the Big Ten tournament this weekend, playing the Penn State Nittany Lions in the first round of the Big Ten this Thursday afternoon.
The Badgers, ranking last in the Big Ten, play the third seeded Nittany Lions, at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, MN, Thursday at 4 PM.
The Badgers are coming off a series split against the Minnesota Gophers in their last series of the regular season. Head coach Mike Eaves praised his team in his weekly press conference following the weekend series.
“We played some pretty good hockey,” Eaves said of last weekend’s series. “I mean, we had talked about playing our best hockey at the end of the year, and over the course of the last four games, there is maybe one period that we were a little disappointed, but we’re doing good things, and that’s good.”
The Badgers are 1-3 against the Penn State Nittany Lions. Their most recent meeting in early March ended in a series split at the Kohl Center. In the March series, the Badgers went from a near win Friday night, losing 1-2, to beating the Nittany Lions 4-3 Saturday night.
“I think if you were to talk to the boys, they would tell you that they feel they could have won all four,” Eaves said.
The first meeting between the two teams in January ended with the Badgers losing 3-4 and 1-4. The Badgers head into this Thursday’s game with confidence that they have the knowledge to beat their competitor.
“We now some of their tendencies, and it will be a matter of us executing to a higher level and continuing to have good goaltending and specialty teams, what is always comes down to in the playoffs,” Eaves said. “I think we feel good knowing that we played them four times, and feeling lie if we play the way we’re capable, especially here in the last four games, then we can do some things.”
With several veteran players having experience in the tournament and freshmen players that are proving their spot on the team, Eaves has confidence that his team can go into this first game with the capability to win.
Eaves praised freshman forward Luke Kunin, who this week was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team. Eaves compared Kunin to three standout former Badger hockey players, who helped with the 2006 NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament, Joe Pavelski, Kyle Turris, and Robbie Earl.
“What Luke brings is an exception,” Eaves said. “Maybe the thing that differentiates him from the others is how focused he is at a young age, his preparation, what he’s willing to do to try to achieve those things that he wants to achieve in his life, separates him a little bit. He has a high-end skill, high-end vision, high-end IQ of the game. What separates him a little bit is just how mature he is at the age he’s at right now.”
Eaves is counting on veteran players, Eddie Wittchow and Kevin Schulze, to use their prior experience in this Thursday’s game.
“I think it’s good to have Eddie and Kevin in there because they were part of that group that did that when we won the WCHA title their freshman year,” Eaves said. “We had to win three games, and it was done.”
Despite a rather lackluster season from the team, finishing last in the Big Ten with an 8-18-8 overall record, Eaves believes his men are playing their best hockey with the end of the regular season. In their last six games of the regular season, the Badgers went 2-2-1, playing three Big Ten competitors.
“We are playing our best hockey, and so that little sliver of opportunity that’s there, we have some things on our favor going toward that,” Eaves said. “
The Badgers regular season record becomes null and void going into the Big Ten Tournament. That being said, Eaves knows that the Badgers remain the underdog in this weekend’s tournament.
“I would agree with the fact that everybody is 0-0, but out window of opportunity to get to the top of the mountain here is slimmer than other groups, and so we recognize that,” Eaves said. “We have to play very well from the first game, but we play 4:00 on Thursday, 4:00 on Friday, and then Saturday is a 7:00 game, so we have a span to cover, and it’s one game at a time.”
The Badgers play the Nittany Lions Thursday at 4 pm. The game will be broadcasted by the Big Ten Network and Badgers Radio Network, WTSO AM 1070. The winner of Thursday afternoon’s game will go on to play the number two seeded Michigan Friday at 4 pm.
Photo obtained from UW Athletics.