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Milewski on Hockey: A rare double sweep for Wisconsin alters the outlook for both teams

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Badgers women's hockey vs. Minnesota

Minnesota celebrates a third-period goal by Catie Skaja in a Dec. 3 game against the Badgers at LaBahn Arena.

It's worth recognizing at the top how rare what we saw out of the University of Wisconsin hockey teams last weekend is.

The women's team was swept at Minnesota. The men's team was swept at Penn State.

Entering last week, the Badgers men's and women's teams had combined to go 0-4 in a two-day span only four times since the women's program started in 1999. Even if you expand the filter to a three-day span to allow for the teams playing on different days of the same weekend, it had happened only six times.

The results have changed the outlook for both of the teams.

Women's hockey: PairWise plunge

The Badgers women's hockey team has been one of the top four seeds in each of the last 11 times it has been selected for the NCAA Tournament. That has meant a quarterfinal game in Madison each of those times with the exception of 2021, when all tournament games were played in Erie, Pennsylvania.

UW is in that spot again, but its hold is looking a little more fragile than it did a week ago.

Two losses at Minnesota sent the Badgers from first in the PairWise Rankings to fourth. The PairWise picks the at-large teams for the NCAA Tournament and assigns seeds using a formula that relies heavily on the Ratings Percentage Index.

For those new to the process or who need a refresher after the selection process was subjective last season, the PairWise compares each team to all 40 others in the country based on RPI, head-to-head results and how they've fared against common opponents. The more comparisons a team wins, the higher it is in the rankings.

The PairWise follows the RPI almost entirely as of now, so UW's drop can be chalked up to a fall in that metric, which tracks a team's record and strength of schedule. UW has a healthy lead over fifth-place Yale in RPI (.6306 to .6161), so it's not in imminent danger of having to go on the road for its first NCAA Tournament game.

The Badgers can improve their RPI most in remaining games against Minnesota Duluth, Ohio State and probably anyone they'd play at the WCHA Final Faceoff. Victories against teams farther down in the RPI will be worth only a little in that regard.

It's worth remembering that because of the expansion to 11 teams in the NCAA Tournament this year, the top three host an extra game between two of the teams seeded sixth through 11th two days before the quarterfinals. The benefit of being in the top three is that you face a team that could be tired from already playing for its season once.

Another note to remember: The NCAA women's ice hockey committee has committed to having the No. 5 seed play at the No. 4 seed in the quarterfinals, regardless of whether they're from the same conference.

There are six weekends of hockey left to be played before the tournament bracket is announced March 6, so there's a more immediate concern for the Badgers: their place in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association standings.

UW fell to third behind Ohio State and Minnesota and needs help from Minnesota opponents — the Gophers play at Ohio State on Friday and Saturday — to get in position to win its sixth WCHA regular-season title in the last seven years. The Badgers still have a series at Ohio State on the schedule for the final weekend, Feb. 18-19, where they can make up a deficit to the Buckeyes.

Men's hockey: Home slipping away

The Badgers men's hockey team was eight points out of a home-ice spot for the first round of the Big Ten playoffs but had two home games against fourth-place Notre Dame still left on the schedule when it started last week's series at Penn State. Maybe not within striking range but close.

UW is still eight points back but the Fighting Irish, idle last weekend, now have two games in hand and a little more comfort in being above the dividing line.

Playoff games at the Kohl Center just don't seem to be UW's fate.

The Big Ten has held playoff games on campus three times in the four years since abandoning the poorly attended neutral-site tournament format that it had from 2014 to 2017. The first-place team gets a bye into the semifinals and teams that finish in second, third and fourth host a best-of-three quarterfinal series.

The Badgers were on the road in 2018, 2019 and 2020, losing each first-round series. They got the bye last season as regular-season champion and would have hosted subsequent rounds in a normal year. But the tournament was squeezed back into three days and one site — Notre Dame's Compton Family Ice Arena — to give more time for regular-season games during a condensed schedule.

It's hard to see how UW can work its way into a top-four spot now that it again is closer to the bottom than it is to the middle. Penn State pulled into sixth place, one point behind the Badgers, with its sweep. UW's margin over last-place Michigan State is only two points.

Consider as well that the four series remaining on the schedule are against the top four teams in the league, starting with co-leader Michigan on Friday and Saturday at the Kohl Center.

Going on the road for the playoffs is another shaky prospect for the Badgers, who have won only one of their eight league games away from home and have been outscored by 22 goals in the other seven.

Three Badgers stars

The top three performances by a Badgers player last week:

No. 3: Mathieu De St. Phalle recorded an assist in both games at Penn State, giving him at least one point in nine of his last 10 outings. He has 10 points in his last 10 games after netting just two in the first 16.

No. 2: Carson Bantle scored twice on his 20th birthday Saturday. Four of his six goals this season have come against Penn State, but the Badgers are 0-4 when he scores.

No. 1: Brette Pettet has played two games on Jan. 22 in her Badgers career. She scored three goals in 2021 and two goals in 2022.

University of Wisconsin women's hockey equipment manager Sis Paulsen talks about being picked for the same role for the U.S. Olympic women's hockey team.

Todd's top 4

Here's how I see the top of the rankings this week:

Men's hockey

1. Minnesota State: The Mavericks have the nation's leading scorer (Nathan Smith) and second-leading goaltender (Dryden McKay).

2. Western Michigan: The Broncos held North Dakota to one goal in a home sweep.

3. Quinnipiac: An overtime loss to Cornell on Saturday won't hurt much in the PairWise, but a strength of schedule ranked 40th of 59 will.

4. Denver: The Pioneers are 12-1-1 in their last 14 games after back-to-back shutouts of Colorado College.

Women's hockey

1. Ohio State: A shuffle this week had us reexamining things, and the Buckeyes' total body of work was more impressive than Northeastern's.

2. Northeastern: A strength of schedule ranked 19th of 41 with Hockey East struggling gives some pause.

3. Minnesota: The Gophers rebounded from a shocking loss to Minnesota State with a signature weekend against the Badgers.

4. Wisconsin: The top line of Daryl Watts, Casey O'Brien and Makenna Webster went scoreless at even strength and was a combined minus-9 against Minnesota.

One week ahead

The Badgers women's hockey team plays at St. Cloud State at 6 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday, then goes to St. Thomas for a make-up game at 7:15 p.m. Monday. If all three are played as scheduled, it'll be the first time UW has played three regular-season games in a span of four days.

The men's team hosts Michigan at 6 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday. Friday's game is on Bally Sports Wisconsin and Saturday's is on Big Ten Network. The Badgers earned their lone road victory of the season against the Wolverines on Oct. 29.

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