Hockey Series Preview: Denver

Denver

It’s been a long hard ride
And I won’t lose hope
This is still the place
That we all call home

Home--Dierks Bentley

After a week off, the Badger Men's hockey team returns to action this weekend for a WCHA series against Denver in the place where the Badgers have found the most success this season, the Kohl Center.

Wisconsin has recorded 11 of their 12 wins this season at the Kohl Center and are facing a tough DU squad that comes into the weekend ranked #10 the country.

Two weeks ago the Badgers fell both nights to St. Cloud in a rare home sweep. Those games came on the heels of a series in Grand Forks where the Badgers were swept by North Dakota.

The four game losing streak is the Badgers longest of the season, but Wisconsin is looking forward to the challenges of playing a talented Pioneer squad.

Badger head coach Mike Eaves talked about the positives of having the the bye week.

"We’re going to come back, and we’re going to get right back to the drawing board, and we’re going to push each other harder. That’s the only way we’re going to get out of this thing."

With a team that features an exorbitant number of freshmen and sophomores, this is a great chance to reflect on where this club wants to go.

"It’s an opportunity for us to take a good look in the mirror," Eaves said. "We’re either going to feel sorry for ourselves and think ‘Oh man, we lost four straight, woe-is-me,’ or we’re going to get right back in the saddle on Monday and all through this week we’re going to get after it and we’re going to get it done and we’re going to improve, and then we’ll see what happens when Denver comes to town."

Sophomore forward Mark Zengerle noted that the bye week may be an opportunity for the team to regain some confidence.

"You just need to get past it (losses to St. Cloud), get back to practice so you can regain your confidence. So I guess you do go back to the drawing board a little bit, but I guess it's a good thing we have a week off."

Denver is going to bring in one of the best teams in the country, and Eaves talked about what this years Pioneer club brings to the table.

"Any good team plays at pace. They try to take time and space away from you. Their penalty killing is very aggressive. They've got Sam Brittain back in that two-game, they got a big spark this weekend, and they've got one of the best players in the league in (Jason) Zucker. The Shore boys bring a lot to them down the middle, and they compete their fannies off. So a lot of things that you would say you would want to see in a top rated team, they have those qualities."

BADGER OFFENSE

Wisconsin is coming off one of their weakest offensive outputs of the season as they only recorded two goals on the weekend. A lot of that had to do with the outstanding play of St. Cloud goaltender Mike Lee who played phenomenal all weekend.

The Badgers out-shot the Huskies on both nights, marking the first time this season that Wisconsin has out-shot their opposition on back to back nights of a series. Wisconsin recorded 74 shots on the weekend, a trend that must continue for the Badgers to have success.

Zengerle was kept off the score-sheet both nights against St. Cloud, marking just the first time this season that the sophomore from Rochester, NY has gone pointless for an entire weekend. With a few injuries in the lineup, Eaves has shifted lines and it appears that Zengerle will be paired up with classmate Michael Mersch.

Mersch, a sophomore out of Park Ridge, Illinois has elevated his game in the second half of the season and has started to throw his body around and is looking like he has the potential to become one of the premier power forwards in the WCHA.

The injury bug continues to ravage the Badger offense. Junior Derek Lee is expected to miss both games again this weekend with a concussion. Lee suffered the injury at North Dakota and has not been cleared for game action.

Additonally, sophomore Jefferson Dahl suffered a concussion in practice over the layoff and will also miss this weekends series.

According to and update from Andy Baggot of the Wisconsin State Journal this week, freshman Brendan Woods is expected to shift to center to help fill the absence of Lee and Dahl.

BADGER DEFENSE & GOALIES

I'd be remiss if I didn't take the opportunity to point out that Badger fans will very likely be seeing two UW defensemen for the last time at the Kohl Center this weekend. With the Badgers home ice playoffs hopes dashed, it will be the last time that senior Eric Springer takes the Kohl Center ice as a Badger.

Additionally, junior Justin Schultz who certainly will forgo his senior season to sign with the Anaheim Ducks will also be skating out in front of the Badger fans in Madison for the last time.

Schultz is going through his biggest offensive slump of the season. He was held off the score-sheet last weekend against St. Cloud on both nights and has just one point in his past four games.

However Schultz isn't a one dimensional player. Even if he's not getting points, he's a factor all over the ice controlling he game. That was apparent last weekend on multiple occasions when Schultz was able to make plays with the puck and with his feet that left you in awe.

Sophomore Frankie Simonelli, who undoubtedly benefits from playing with Schultz is taking advantage of his opportunities. The Bensenville, Illinois native has recoded points in four of his past six contests and has been one of the most steady defenders on the Badger blue-line.

The coaching staff split up the goaltending duties against the Huskies, starting Joel Rumpel on Friday, and Landon Peterson on Saturday. Rumpel had arguably his worst game of the season, giving up five goals on 24 shots. Peterson fared a bit better, stopping 21 of 23 shots.

Rumpel is expected to be your Friday night starter, getting thrown right back into the fire against the Pioneers. Saturday's decision, as always will be based on Friday's results.

PIONEER OFFENSE

There's no question that the two names Wisconsin will focus on in their pre-game meetings will be Jason Zucker and Drew Shore.

Zucker, who hails from Las Vegas is one of the most electrifying players on the Pioneers roster. The biggest question surrounding the 5'11, 185 pound sophomore this weekend is his health. Zucker was on the wrong end of a late hit by Minnesota freshman Kyle Rau last weekend. The hit knocked Zucker out of the rest of the Friday night contest, as well as the Saturday finale. Rau was suspended for one game by the WCHA for the hit.

I talked to Denver Post writer Mike Chambers this week and he assured me that Zucker will be healthy enough to play this weekend.

Drew Shore is Denver's leading goal scorer and also is tops in total points with 41 in 29 games. The 6'2, 195 pound Shore is the Pioneers top center and will undoubtedly draw the attention of the boys in cardinal and white all weekend long.

Drew's younger brother Nick, who has been centering a line with Zucker is another player to watch for Denver this weekend. The sophomore from Denver, Colorado has 27 points in 30 games for the Pioneers this season.

PIONEER DEFENSE & GOALIES

Defensively, the Pioneers biggest talents are their younger blue-liners. Freshman Joe LaLeggia trials only the Badgers Justin Schultz in scoring in the country among defensemen. LaLeggia, who played last season with Badger goaltender Joel Rumpel with the Penticton Vees has recorded 33 points in the first 30 games of his collegiate career.

Also watch out for Pioneers talented monster defenseman Scott Mayfield who checks in at 6'4, 200 pounds. The St. Louis native was the 34th overall selection in last summers draft by the New York Islanders. Mayfield is the stay at home type of blue-liner but has chipped in eight points of his own this season.

In net, the Pioneers received a huge boost a few weeks ago with the return of sophomore Sam Brittain. The Calgary native was outstanding for Denver in his rookie campaign but suffered a knee injury late last year that required off season surgery and kept him out of action until recently.

Since returning, Brittain has gone 3-1 with a .924 save percentage. Brittain is expected to start on Friday, and with the Pioneers still in contention for a conference championship, it would be surprising not to see Brittain on Saturday as well.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Special teams is going to be arguably the most important situation to follow for this weekends series against Denver. The Pioneers bring to town the #6 ranked power play, converting at 24% on the season.

They are going to challenge the Wisconsin penalty kill that has been one of the worst in the nation this season. The Badgers are 56th out of 58 teams with just a 73.9% kill rate. Additionally, the Badgers have been terrible of late in this department. Wisconsin is just 59.1% on the PK in their past 7 contests.

The Badgers power play has fared much better than their penalty kill this season. In fact, Wisconsin has the 10th ranked PP in the nation, scoring on 21.5% of their power plays.

Denver's penalty kill is right around the middle of the pack. The Pioneers are killing off 80.7% of their penalties this season.

THREE KEY'S TO SUCCESS

  1. Shut down Denver's power play. I just outlined how deadly they are with the man advantage. If the Badgers can limit their time spent in the box, it's going to greatly increase their chances of winning games this weekend.
  2. Continue to get the puck on net. The Badgers took major strides last weekend against St. Cloud, out-shooting the Huskies on both nights. If you shoot enough, shots are going to start falling.
  3. Get bodies on Drew Shore and Jason Zucker. Those are two of the most talented forwards in the country and it's going to be very important for Wisconsin to bump them anytime they have the puck.

COVERAGE

Friday nights game will be televised on FSN+ (check your listings). The game will also be tape delayed on the Wisconsin Channel at 10 PM.

Saturday's game will be televised on FSN. It will also be tape delayed on the Wisconsin Channel at 10 PM.

As always, you can listen to the Badgers on the Badger Sports Network, and WIBA 1310.

POLLS

Denver is ranked #10 by both USCHO.com and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine. Wisconsin is un-ranked.

INJURIES

Wisconsin will be without the services of both Derek Lee (concussion) and Jefferson Dahl (Concussion).

Denver will be missing David Makowski (upper body), and Beau Bennett (wrist). Jason Zucker is expected to play.

LAST MEETING

The Pioneers took 3 of 4 points from the Badgers in Denver last season.

FUN FACT

Denver coach George Gwozdecky is a former teammate of Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves.

PREDICTION

When handicapping this series I considered a number of different factors. Denver is playing much better than the Badgers right now, and probably have more talent on the roster right now as well. However the series is at the Kohl Center, where the Badgers have played much better this season.

Additionally, the Badgers will honor former All-American Kirk Daubenspeck before the game on Friday night, who suffered a terrible car crash a year ago and has made a miraculous recovery. It's expected to be an emotional moment, and one that the Badgers are hoping will give them energy throughout the weekend.

In my opinion, this weekend has split written all over it.

Friday Night: Wisconsin 4, Denver 3

Saturday Night: Denver 2, Wisconsin 1

Join the Badger conversation on Facebook! Go to our Facebook page and "like" us!

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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