Hockey Series Preview: North Dakota

UND

They said my future was dark
You see me now?
Just look around
I'm beamin'

Lupe Fiasco--I'm Beamin'

Seemingly left for dead a month ago, the Wisconsin men's hockey team is not only relevant again but they are charging ahead and not looking back.

In just 10th place in the WCHA a few weeks ago, the Badgers are now just two points back of sixth place North Dakota for the final home ice spot in the WCHA playoffs.

The Badgers are also relevant again in the discussion for an at large bid in the NCAA tournament. Not even a team under consideration a few weeks back, the Badgers are now 23rd in the pairwise with a chance to make an upward move this weekend with two games against North Dakota.

This surge comes as the Badgers are playing arguably their best hockey of the season. Wisconsin is 7-2-1 in their last 10 games.

To keep surging forward is not going to be easy. The Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks is one of the most intimidating barns in the league. Additionally, North Dakota is in a similar situation as the Badgers. Both clubs are fighting for home ice in the WCHA playoffs and for a chance to earn an at large bid in the NCAA tournament.

The Ralph Engelstad Arena has an NHL sized ice surface (200x85) which is smaller than the one at the Kohl Center (200x97). In fact, the Badgers haven't played on an ice surface this small since their series at Michigan Tech October 14th and 15th. That smaller sheet will force the Badgers to make quicker decisions with the puck.

"Going there, we know they play in a smaller rink, so there's going to be less time and space. They take it away from you. They play a physical game. And it's going to be a real good test for our kids," Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves noted in his weekly press conference.

"We as a staff are very much interested to see how we respond and see if we can play in that atmosphere because that's the kind of atmosphere you're going to play at when it comes time to win, or try to win a championship."

BADGER OFFENSE

Wisconsin's top unit got it going last weekend against Alaska Anchorage. It was especially nice to see sophomore Tyler Barnes notch a goal on Saturday. It was the first time since over Thanksgiving that Barnes had registered a goal. The former Burnsville high school star started the season with five goals in his first seven games, so don't be surprised to see Barnes get on a little streak soon.

Freshman Joseph LaBate scored arguably his biggest goal of his young career on Saturday. Tied at 2 late in the third period, LaBate trailed Justin Schultz into the offensive zone and found some space in the slot where Schultz fed him the game winner.

Junior Derek Lee also got in on the fun Saturday with his first goal since his injury in October. Lee, who has been paired up with Michael Mersch and Matt Paape is the straw that stirs the drink on that line. If the Badgers are going to have success this weekend, they are going to need scoring from this unit.

BADGER DEFENSE & GOALIES

I think once again this weekend we can expect Justin Schultz and Frankie Simonelli to play major minutes for the Badgers. Last weekend Schultz registered points on five of the seven goals scored by the Badgers and was on the ice for every single one of them going +7 for the weekend en route to WCHA defensive player of the week honors.

Freshman Jake McCabe continues to get better every weekend on the ice. I think he's found a home with junior captain John Ramage and the pair has found a way to feed off each other. Ramage is going to probably spend a lot of time matching up with UND's explosive top line, we'll see if the freshman McCabe is up to the challenge.

It's obvious at this point that Joel Rumpel is the #1 man between the pipes for the Badgers. He's allowed just five goals in his past five starts and is looking for that to carry over this weekend against UND. I would be astonished if Rumpel isn't the starting net-minder on both nights for the Badgers.

NORTH DAKOTA OFFENSE

The UND forwards are led by their top group of Brock Nelson, Corban Knight, and Danny Kristo. If those three don't find a way to put the puck in the net, North Dakota doesn't win hockey games.

According to the of the research of our freind Brad Elliott Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald, since that line has been together, the trio has registered 49 points in nine victories, but just 9 points in their seven losses.

Pretty obvious who Wisconsin needs to focus on this weekend right?

UND has struggled to find secondary scoring all season and that's one of the things they will be looking for this weekend out of guys like Carter Rowney, and Mitch MacMillan.

NORTH DAKOTA DEFENSE & GOALIES

If you 're going to the games this weekend or plan on watching on TV, expect to see Ben Blood on the ice for at least half the game. I joked around when chatting with UND's beat writer this week asking if Blood ever comes off the ice because he seemingly never does.

You'll also notice a little freshman, Nick Mattson who wears number five and looks (& plays) a lot like the last UND defenseman to wear that same number, Chay Genoway. Mattson is just a freshman but he comes from the National Team program and is skilled and makes things happen all over the ice.

In net it's hard to predict what we'll see out of UND this weekend. Last weekend both Brad Eidsness and Aaron Dell saw action and we very likely could see both again this weekend. We'll have to wait until game time to know.

COVERAGE

Both games will be televised on FSN +, as well as Fox College Sports (Central on Friday, Atlantic on Saturday). As always you can catch the games on radio on the Badger Sports Network, and WIBA 1310.

POLLS

Wisconsin is unranked in both major polls.

North Dakota is #18 in the USCHO.com poll, and receiving votes in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll.

INJURIES

Wisconsin is at full strength.

UND will be without Rocco Grimaldi, Brendan O'Donnell, and Derek Rodwell. Derek Forbort is questionable but it's not expected that he'll play.

LAST MEETING

Wisconsin swept North Dakota in Madison earlier this season, 5-3, 5-4.

FUN FACT

North Dakota is no longer the Fighting Sioux. The University retired the nickname as of January 1st and is going without a nickname for the next three seasons. The hockey team will still wear jerseys with "Sioux" across the chest until their new ones arrive.

PREDICTION

My first prediction? This is going to be an outstanding series to cover. I'm making the trip and couldn't be more excited. This is an outstanding rivalry and should be two outstanding hockey games.

Both teams are similar in that they are fighting and clawing for every point they can get right now in WCHA play.

I think Wisconsin steals one on Friday night and UND pays them back on Saturday.

Friday: Wisconsin 3, North Dakota 2

Saturday: North Dakota 4, Wisconsin 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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