UW has been celebrating quite a bit as of late. Wisconsin’s 17 wins are tied for 2nd nationally.[/media-credit]Eighteen games into the 2010-11 season, the Wisconsin men’s hockey team played the way it was expected to.The Badgers were 8-7-3. They were raw and inconsistent. Their inexperience was evident, and it looked as though they would have to fight all year for a final spot in the NCAA tournament. With all the talent that was lost from last year’s squad that advanced to the national title game, this was no surprise.But things have changed.After splitting a series with lowly Alaska Anchorage in early December, UW went on to win nine of its next 10 contests, with the only loss coming on the road against No.5 Minnesota Duluth. The Badgers currently hold a 10-game winning streak at home, which hasn’t been done since 1985.Wisconsin has vaulted up to No. 7 in the rankings with a 17-8-3 record. Interestingly enough, last year’s team was 17-8-4 at this point. Now, UW is now seven points away from first-place Denver in the ultra-competitive WCHA.All of the sudden the Badgers, loaded with freshmen all throughout the lineup, don’t look so young anymore.Sounding like veteransHead coach Mike Eaves has had to do a lot of talking this season with two new assistant coaches and a small senior class.During games, Eaves would dominate the conversation on the bench, motivating his players and barking out orders – something he rarely had to do last year.But after UW played Minnesota State last weekend, Eaves realized he hadn’t said as much on the bench. It became clear that this team had matured when the Mavericks scored to tie game two of the series.“It was interesting; most times when we get scored against, it’s the coaches that are saying “let’s respond, let’s respond’,” Eaves explained. “But in this case, it was the players. That is a sign of growth.”Center Craig Smith and the Badgers responded less than a minute later to retake the lead. The Badgers went on to win, 3-2, and sweep the series.Learning in the film roomEaves has noticed growth away from the ice as well.This time, the Badgers made an impression while watching video of their penalty killing effort against the Mavericks in game one. Eaves and his staff didn’t like what they saw, but more importantly, neither did the Badgers.Once again, the player’s voices were heard loud and clear, this time in the film room.“Last night we were scrambling, and we weren’t as concise as we wanted to be,’” Eaves said of the PK unit after the game last Friday. “Coach Butters did a good job, as well as the penalty killers. It was a great meeting, and the players were talking and asking questions. They got up at the board and were a part of the process. Going through that helped us to be more concise and detailed.”The Badgers held MSU scoreless on the power play the next night, and UW’s one goal with man-advantage proved to the difference.Thriving in tight gamesEarlier in the year, close games like the ones UW experienced against MSU weren’t kind to the Badgers.But after losing the first five one-goal games of the season, Wisconsin has flipped the script, winning the last five one-goal contests.This team isn’t folding in pressure-packed situations, and as a result, the wins keeps coming.“When we lose one-goal games, we try to learn as much as possible from our loss. Every one of those games we use has a learning experience,” senior goaltender Scott Gudmandson said. “We felt how bitter we were after every one-goal loss we had and now we feel how happy and excited we can be after we win.”There has been plenty to celebrate thanks to Gudmandson and the UW defensemen, who are putting the Badgers in a position to win each night. Gudmandson holds the top save percentage and goals-against average in the conference, and as a team, UW is toughest team to score against in the country – allowing just 2.04 goals a game.Wisconsin’s past four wins have all come by just a single goal.That sure sounds like playoff hockey.Sky is the limitThis unprecedented turnaround has been a result of the players’ maturation along with their film study and mental toughness. But the rise in confidence started at the practice rink, and that positive energy has translated to success on the weekends.“We saw things this weekend that we are really excited about because we worked on them in practice, and they’re executing in games,” Eaves said after the MSU series. “And as a coach, that really charges you up… when you go back and show the kids feedback, they go, ‘this stuff really does work’.”The winning may come as a surprise to those outside the locker room, but assistant captain Jake Gardiner and the Badgers’ other top performers, namely Justin Schultz and Craig Smith who have scored 29 goals combined, have consistently produced at an elite level. With that type of production, they expect to compete with the best.“At Christmas I would say I was surprised. But the way we’ve been playing lately and the way guys have stepped up… it’s awesome,” Gardiner said.They were regarded as a young, rebuilding team at the start of the year, but the Badgers’ play has earned them a new label: contenders.“Where we can go, I’d like to say it’s unlimited,” Eaves said.