The joyous bus ride home was punctuated by messages of congratulations, which is what one would expect for members of the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team late Saturday night.
By virtue of a 5-4 overtime triumph over Ohio State, the Badgers won the inaugural Big Ten Conference playoff championship and secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. No surprise then that family, friends and fans alike reached out with salutes via social media.
But as the postgame celebration gave way to a four-hour ride from St. Paul, Minn., UW players began getting messages of love from a very odd location.
Players at North Dakota were reaching out via text and Twitter to say thank you for prolonging their season.
In a strange twist of fate, the victory by the Badgers knocked Ohio State out of contention for a spot in the 16-team NCAA field and enabled North Dakota to get an at-large berth.
In an even stranger twist of fate, guess who UW drew for its Midwest regional semifinal Friday at U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati?
Yes, the one-time Western Collegiate Hockey Association antagonists will hook up at 7 p.m., with the winner facing Ferris State or Colgate at 5 p.m. Saturday.
The regional survivor will advance to the NCAA Frozen Four April 10 to 12 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
“I know that they were really excited about it,” UW senior defenseman and captain Frankie Simonelli said after exchanging texts with North Dakota defenseman Nick Matteson.
“The next thing we know, we’re probably going to be playing them and I don’t know if they knew that at the time.”
UW junior defenseman Jake McCabe mentioned he’d exchanged similarly themed texts with Jordan Schmaltz, a Verona resident and defenseman at North Dakota.
“It’s definitely ironic,” Simonelli said of the first-round assignment. “But we’re definitely excited for it.”
After spending 43 seasons together in the WCHA, a time spent carving out one of the most heated of college hockey rivalries, UW and North Dakota were pulled in different directions by the forces of realignment.
The Badgers (24-10-2 overall) hooked up with the six-school Big Ten and North Dakota (23-13-3) bolted for the new eight-member National Collegiate Hockey Conference for 2013-14.
Both clubs endured rough patches early in the season — each was under .500 on Dec. 1 — but picked it up and wound up finishing second in their leagues.
Now UW will face North Dakota for the 164th time overall and the third time in an NCAA game. The two previous meetings — the national title game in 1982 and the Midwest regional final in 2008 — were won by the school that no longer has an official nickname.
The Fighting Sioux are now known to some as the Fighting Whioux after the NCAA ruled the school’s mascot violated its standards on Native American nicknames and forced it to make a change.
“Getting matched up there with North Dakota just tells me that the gauntlet starts right now,” UW coach Mike Eaves said.
The Badgers and North Dakota are among six former WCHA teams that qualified for the national tournament: Minnesota, Denver, Minnesota State-Mankato and St. Cloud State are the others.
If the top four seeds hold, UW would face top-ranked and No. 1 overall seed Minnesota in the Frozen Four semifinals.
The current group of nine Badgers seniors is 2-5-1 in games vs. North Dakota and they don’t expect much has changed in the makeup of their rival.
“We know they’re going to play hard, they’re going to play physical and they’re going to play with pace,” Eaves said.
North Dakota doesn’t have a prolific scorer — redshirt sophomore center Rocco Grimaldi (14 goals, 22 assists and 36 points) is one of three double-digit scorers — but its overall statistics measuring offense, defense and special teams essentially match those of the Badgers.
“We know what they’re going to bring; they know what we’re going to bring,” UW senior center Jefferson Dahl said. “I’m sure it will be a good one.”
The Badgers enter the NCAA tournament having played five consecutive one-goal games, winning four, and having staged one of their most stirring comebacks.
Ohio State had a 4-2 lead with 6 minutes, 52 seconds left in regulation Saturday, but goals 28 seconds apart by Dahl and senior right winger Tyler Barnes tied it before senior center Mark Zengerle won it in overtime.
“Everyone’s playing to their role right now, playing to their strengths,” Dahl said.