To best measure what happened to the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team this season, look closely at its bookend moments.
The Badgers began and ended the year with 3-2 losses in overtime, outings against Northern Michigan and Denver, respectively, that defined a distinct inability to execute in the clutch.
UW was tied at some point in the third period of 17 of 37 games, but wound up winning only five (5-10-2) while going 0-4-2 in overtime.
If your glass is half-full, that’s simply a very young team — six freshmen and eight sophomores played at least 25 games — in the process of learning how to win.
If your glass is half-empty, that constitutes a maddening two-year trend that has kept the Badgers mired in the second division of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and out of the NCAA tournament.
A season ago the Badgers were 6-8-3 in games in which they were tied in the third period, including a 1-3-4 mark in overtime.
In opening-round WCHA playoff series losses at Colorado College last March and Denver last weekend, UW was 2-4 in games that were tied in the third and 0-2 in overtime.
For some perspective, MacNaughton Cup champion Minnesota is 8-6-2 when tied in the third and 2-2-1 in overtime games this season, while top-ranked Boston College is 10-4-1 when tied in the third and 3-2-1 in overtime.
The overtime conundrum runs deeper than the last two seasons. The Badgers are 1-13-21 in overtime games overall the last five seasons. That includes a 0-11-17 mark against league opponents, 0-6-11 on the road and 0-4 in the playoffs.
“No explanation,” UW coach Mike Eaves said after his club finished the season 17-18-2 overall. “If you come up with one, let me know.”
The Badgers had their worst finish in WCHA history (11-15-2, 10th) while setting a school record for fewest shots on goal (975) and compiling the poorest penalty-killing ratio in 10 seasons under Eaves (76.3 percent).
But the way UW finished the season and the nucleus it should have back for 2012-13 — its final go-around in the WCHA before taking up residence under the new Big Ten Conference umbrella — has created reason for optimism.
The Badgers won four of their last five regular-season games and were playing at a very high level when they were ousted from the playoffs by third-seeded Denver. “We really came into our own in the second half and saw growth,” Eaves said.
“I can’t recall a time since I’ve been here in Denver when we’ve been tested so fiercely by our opponent in the first round,” George Gwozdecky, coach of the Pioneers for 18 seasons, told the Denver Post.
“If you look where we came from the beginning of the year, I mean, we’ve come miles,” UW junior defenseman and assistant captain Justin Schultz said. “If we had a couple more games, we could be a dominating force. I still think we could have competed with any team in this league right now and across the country.”
The Badgers will try and carry those good vibes into next season when they expect most, if not all, their forwards back as well as both front-line goaltenders and at least half of their regulars on defense. The projected headliner is center Mark Zengerle, who led the team in scoring and would be the first 50-point scorer to return since Eaves took over in 2002.
UW has lost seven underclassmen to the pros over the last two years, which certainly factors into its struggles, and can expect to see multiple defections this offseason.
A surprising one came Tuesday when freshman Patrick Daly — a seventh-round NHL draft pick of New Jersey in 2011 — told Eaves he was leaving the team to concentrate on school.
“He said it wasn’t in his heart anymore,” Eaves said of Daly, who saw action in 11 games this season.
Meanwhile, all signs point to Schultz, an All-American who became the first defenseman in program history to lead the team in goals with 16, bypassing his senior season for the NHL. Junior defenseman and captain John Ramage is another flight risk, while sophomore winger Michael Mersch may be on the bubble. Anaheim, Calgary and Los Angeles own their NHL rights, respectively.
The Badgers have a four-member recruiting class headed by center Nic Kerdiles, regarded as one of the top 50 NHL prospects in the world, and defenseman Eddie Wittchow, an NHL draft pick of Florida in 2011.
Eaves said the end of the season reminded him of how legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi once described losses.
“In some games he used to say ‘We ran out of time,’ ” Eaves said. “I feel like that way with the season with the way our kids were playing. We ran out of games this year.”