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Home playoff series a long shot, but Wisconsin Badgers men’s hockey team looks for postseason mentality

February 27, 2019

Taking into account the two series that matter in the race for home ice in the first round of the Big Ten Conference men’s hockey playoffs, there are 100 scenarios that could play out in the final weekend.

Of them, only two end up with the University of Wisconsin hosting a quarterfinal series.

The Badgers’ last-ditch hopes require them to sweep Michigan in a two-game series at the Kohl Center on Friday and Saturday. And in the other matchup involving teams in contention for home ice, UW needs Notre Dame to take at least five points at home against Penn State.

The odds are against it. But even if that doesn’t come up for the Badgers, they have something to play for this weekend.

UW coach Tony Granato said a week ago the important element for the Badgers as the regular season comes to a close is playing in a way that will lead them into the postseason with some confidence.

That desire is unchanged after UW split at Penn State last weekend. UW followed perhaps its poorest outing of the season on Friday with perhaps its finest on Saturday and hopes to build on the latter.

“There’s nothing to save it for,” Granato said Monday, setting up a playoff mentality. “You either do it now or you go home. I think that’s good for our team to realize that it’s up to us on how far our season goes. This is a good weekend for us to take a crack at getting home-ice advantage. Play the right way Friday and Saturday night might be a meaningful game.”

UW, 2-2 in its past four games after opening 2019 1-7-2, is in sixth place in the seven-team Big Ten. Michigan State is one point behind, Penn State is four ahead and Notre Dame and Michigan are six in front.

Ohio State has clinched the No. 1 seed and the quarterfinal bye as league champion. The teams that finish second, third and fourth host a playoff series against the bottom three in the standings March 8-10.

Minnesota has wrapped up one of the three hosting spots, leaving Michigan, Notre Dame, Penn State and UW to vie for the other two.

Of the 100 scenarios involving the UW-Michigan and Notre Dame-Penn State series, Michigan gets home ice in 81. Notre Dame does in 77 and Penn State in 40.

The two that favor the Badgers have them and Michigan tying for fourth place and UW winning the second tiebreaker, head-to-head results.

“I don’t think it’s on our minds too much,” freshman right wing Jack Gorniak said. “We’re just going to focus on each game. We just need to use it as an opportunity to get better this weekend, so when we go into the playoffs we’re at our best.”

Successful new trio

Granato said that, with the embarrassment of an 8-2 loss the night earlier fresh in their minds, the Badgers could have had success with any forward combinations he could put together for Saturday’s 7-3 victory.

But putting Gorniak on the right side of a line with Linus Weissbach and center Tarek Baker for the first time made for a speedy group that was able to create scoring chances after breaking out of UW’s zone.

“Me, Tarek and Linus are all fast forwards, so we like to use that,” Gorniak said. “Get back on the backcheck and transition fast. That was a big part of the line.”

All three players scored Saturday, though Baker’s goal was while playing on the Badgers’ penalty kill.

The new configuration was one of three new groups created Saturday, when center Dominick Mersch was out with a lower-body injury. Mersch, Baker and defenseman Tyler Inamoto didn’t practice Monday but are expected back later this week. Baker left Saturday’s game late after being elbowed in the head, and Inamoto missed the contest after aggravating a hip injury last Friday.

Granato said that defenseman K’Andre Miller, who has missed the past four games with a left leg injury, may return to skating later this week but likely will miss the Michigan series.

Aleksi Peltonen moves on

Aleksi Peltonen won’t be joining his twin brother with the Badgers. He committed to St. Lawrence last week, saying the ECAC Hockey school offered him a better role.

Peltonen, a forward who turns 21 in June, originally committed to the Badgers with his brother, Jesper, a freshman defenseman for UW, in January 2017. The Helsinki natives both were at Northwood School in New York at the time.

The Badgers already have five forwards signed to join the team next season and 11 players eligible to return from the current roster at the position.

Aleksi Peltonen has eight goals and 21 points in 27 games this season for the United States Hockey League’s Omaha Lancers.

He’s the sixth player who originally committed to the Badgers since Granato took over in 2016 who won’t end up with the team due to either a change of plans or admissions issues.