North Dakota Preview

I waited all my life to play
I still can’t find a way
But if I work it one more day
I might just break the Chain
I might just break the Chain
I might just break the Chain

Lupe Fiasco-Break the chain ft. Eric Turner

Last weekend the Badger hockey team made their first road trip of the season to Michigan Tech. Despite falling behind both nights, Wisconsin battled back to force overtime in both contests. Unfortunately, the Badgers fell in overtime to the Huskies in both games, marking their second and third overtime losses in only four games this season.

After a great week of practice, the Badgers have another opportunity to prove themselves in the WCHA with the University of North Dakota coming to town. The Fighting Sioux come to Madison with something to prove themselves after what they would describe as an average start. UND split the opening weekend at the Ice Breaker, beating Air Force but getting handled by Boston College 6-2. Last weekend the Sioux beat Maine on Friday, and tied in the series finale.

BADGER OFFENSE

Well, hopefully this isn't a trend, but it's the second weekly preview in a row that we're talking about the slow starts that the Badgers have had. Wisconsin has fallen behind in all four games they've played, putting themselves behind the 8-ball in every game.

Wisconsin shouldn't be worried about the goals given up (we'll talk about those in a bit), but It's starting to become a concern that the offense is becoming too reactionary. While It's encouraging that this team has come back in all four games they've played, it seems as if it takes a goal or two from the opposition to wake them up.

Mike Eaves has shaken up the lines this week, promoting freshman Joseph LaBate up to the top line with sophomores Mark Zengerle and Tyler Barnes. LaBate has played strong for an 18 year old coming out of high school hockey, and should find some more opportunities to put the puck in the net playing with Barnes and Zengerle. Barnes has now scored in three straight games, and Zengerle flashed some speed last weekend that I haven't seen out of him as a Badger.

With LaBate moving up, that means Mersch has been moved off the top line. Mersch hasn't played bad this season by any means, but he has yet hit his stride. This change could be the motivation and spark that Mersch needs. He'll be playing on a wing with Derek Lee and Matt Paape this weekend.

It will be interesting to see how the other two lines shake out for Wisconsin tonight. Andy Baggot reported this week that Jefferson Dahl had suffered a shoulder injury in practice this week. Dahl is one of the teams top penalty killers, and their regular third line center. If he can't go, expect Keegan Meuer, who had a beautiful goal last Saturday night to get extended ice time in his absence.

BADGER DEFENSE & GOALIES

One of the more encouraging things so far this season has been the way the defense and goalies have played. Wisconsin is giving up two and a half goals per game so far this season, but none of the goals have come from major defensive breakdowns.

Last weekend the three goals that were scored on the Badgers in regulation were all on tips. Husky forward Tanner Kero had two of the goals on long shots from the point that he tipped in. The other goal in regulation hit about 13 shin pads before growing eyes and finding twine. Sure, you could argue that the defensemen need to work on lifting sticks and clearing bodies from the slot, but it's much less of a concern than consistently giving up odd man rushes.

No surprise to anyone, Justin Schultz leads the team in scoring with five assists this season despite playing no where close to what he's capable of. Schultz is settling into a new role this season with a lot more pressure on him, and is drawing more attention from the opposition. I feel weird saying it, given he's leading the team in scoring, but I think it's only a matter of time before he really gets it going.

As for the goalies, like I talked about in my piece earlier in the week, they've been a pleasant early season surprise for this young team. The two freshmen, Joel Rumpel and Landon Peterson have been solid in every game they've played and have given the team a chance to win. Peterson will start on Friday night with Rumpel taking the crease on Saturday.

FIGHTING SIOUX OFFENSE

North Dakota was absolutely loaded last season, and had scoring weapons on every line. But gone are studs like Jason Gregoire, Brett Hextall, Brad Malone, and Evan Trupp. They also lost Matt Frattin who is suiting up every night in NHL for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Don't be fooled though, the Sioux still can pack a punch. Led by Danny Kristo, Corban Knight, and Brock Nelson, UND should still be considered one of the more gifted offensive clubs in the league. Kristo and Knight are off to fast starts, with 7 and 6 points each respectively to start the season. Kristo missed most of last season with a freak foot injury, and is making up for lost time.

Two other players were expected to be major contributors for the Sioux up front this year, but neither has made an impact so far. The first one, J.T. Miller, a first round draft pick of the New York Rangers backed out of his Sioux commitment late in the summer to play in the OHL. The second one, Rocco Grimaldi, a second round draft pick of the Florida Panthers, has been suffering from a lower body injury, and has only suited up for one game this season. Grimaldi, who was the #1 recruit in the country this season, did not make the trip to Madison this weekend.

FIGHTING SIOUX DEFENSE & GOALIES

The Sioux had one of the best defenses in the country last season, and this year is no different. Chay Genoway, Derrick LaPoint, and Jake Marto have graduated, but UND brings in two talented freshmen in Nick Mattson and Andrew Panzarella, as well as a lengthy list of talented returnees.

Ben Blood, Andrew MacWilliam and Derek Forbort are three of the best blue-liners in the league, and are all huge. Despite being a sophomore, Dillon Simpson is still the youngest player on the North Dakota roster. Don't let that fool you though, he's another talented defenseman in the UND defensive stable.

UND returns one of the most experienced goaltending duo's in the country with Aaron Dell and Brad Eidsness. Eidsness has played in 91 career games for North Dakota, but an early season cold spell last year cost him his job. Dell took over the starting gig, and helped lead the Sioux to the Frozen Four. Dell was also named to the All-WCHA first team in his first year as the regular starter. Both goalies have been given an opportunity so far this season, and it's expected that we will see both this weekend.

COVERAGE

The Friday night game is scheduled to be televised on Fox Sports Wisconsin, and on radio on WIBA-AM 1310. Saturday night the game will be televised on the Wisconsin Channel, and on the radio on WTSO-AM 1070. Both games will be re-aired on the Wisconsin Channel.

There is a webcast on UWBadgers.com for those out of state on Saturday.

POLLS

Wisconsin is "receiving votes" in the USCHO.com poll, and has fallen out of the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll. North Dakota is ranked fifth in the USCHO.com poll, and sixth in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll.

INJURIES

Jefferson Dahl suffered a shoulder injury in practice this week, and his status is uncertain for this weekends series. For North Dakota, forwards Rocco Grimaldi and Brandon O'Donnell didn't make the trip due to injuries.

Badger assistant Bill Butters also had to get some stitches to the head this week when he was hit with an errant puck. He might have lost some brain cells, but he'll be on the bench this weekend.

PREDICTIONS

My initial thoughts were to predict a sweep in the favor of North Dakota, but the more I analyze this weekend, the better I feel about the Badgers locking up at least a couple of points. Wisconsin seems to play good with their backs up against the wall judging by their first four games. Coming off a sweep at the hands of Michigan Tech, you could say the Badgers backs are up against the wall. I see the Sioux overpowering the Badgers on Friday, and Wisconsin feeding off the crowd on Saturday to earn a hard fought split.

Friday: North Dakota 3, Wisconsin 2

Saturday: Wisconsin 4, North Dakota 2

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For more Wisconsin hockey coverage, follow Chuck on Twitter (@UWChuckSchwartz)

Chuck can also be reached via e-mail at chuckschwartz@live.com

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