Playoff Series Preview: Denver

WCHA Rookie of the Year Joey LaLeggia will be a player to watch this weekend. Photo: Matthew Semisch (radiofreeomaha.com)

If you are what you say you are, a superstar
Then have no fear, the crowd is here
And the lights are on
And they wanna show oh oh oh oh, yeah

Lupe Fiasco--Superstar

The lights most definitely will be shining bright this weekend as the hockey Badgers open up their 'second season' as they start a best-of-three series with Denver in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.

As Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves so eloquently put it last weekend, the Badgers are fighting for their hockey lives. In order for Wisconsin to keep playing this season, they must keep winning.

At this point with the Badgers sitting in a tie for 23rd in the pairwise rankings, Wisconsin will need to win the WCHA tournament in order to advance to the NCAA tournament.

It helps that Wisconsin is entering the post season playing their best hockey of the season. The Badgers have won four of their past five games, including three road victories.

Last weekend the Badgers split on the road at Mariucci against WCHA regular season champion Minnesota. Carrying over the momentum the Badgers have acquired recently is going to be key in knocking off Denver this weekend.

"We've been on the road here the last couple weekends. We've won three out of four. We were in a position to win four out of four," Eaves noted. "So I think, intrinsically, we understand what it takes, and we just get on that plane and head into Denver and continue what we've been doing. But I think it's legitimate, what we're feeling inside."

Wisconsin recently played Denver at the Kohl Center and split with the Pioneers.

Eaves noted that recent success against Denver will go a long ways towards the confidence of his team this week.

"I think that's part of what makes our feeling legitimate is having played well here against (Denver) and taking that and using that as we go forward," Eaves said.

"That factors into that feeling of being legitimate with our confidence. So all those things add up into us having a basic feeling that we can get the job done should we continue to play like we are."

WISCONSIN OFFENSE

Most noteworthy this week is the return of junior center Derek Lee to the lineup. Lee has been out since the middle of the North Dakota series with a concussion and has missed the past 9 games. The North Vancouver native is one of the more dangerous offensive weapons that Wisconsin has on the roster, and his return couldn't come at a better time.

Sophomore Mark Zengerle had another big weekend in Minneapolis. Zengerle was named the WCHA offensive player of the week with his five point weekend. Zengerle had a hand in every goal the Badgers scored against the Gophers, including a highlight reel goal of his own.

Look for sophomore Michael Mersch to have a big weekend for the Badgers. The Illinois native has been playing his best hockey in the second half of the season, and the smaller ice surface plays to his style of hockey. Expect Mersch to be physical, and put a few points on the board this weekend.

WISCONSIN DEFENSE & GOALTENDER

With Wisconsin's season on the line this weekend, you can expect to see #6 and #27 on the ice a lot for the Badgers. Obviously I'm talking about Justin Schultz and Frankie Simonelli who make up Wisconsin's top pairing.

Schultz is playing quite possibly his last games as a Badger and Wisconsin fans should be excited to watch their Hobey Baker candidate in a do-or-die situation.

Goaltender choice should be interesting this weekend. With Wisconsin having to play at the high altitude in Denver, it wouldn't surprise me to see Eaves play both Joel Rumpel and Landon Peterson this weekend, especially if the series goes to three games on Sunday.

PIONEER OFFENSE

Denver's offense starts with Jason Zucker and Drew Shore. While they don't play on the same line, they are two of the most dangerous forwards in the league, and they were honored as such this week. Both players were named Second Team All-WCHA yesterday.

Zucker chipped in two goals when the Pioneers were in Madison a few weeks ago and he can make you pay in a hurry. The second round draft pick of the Minnesota Wild has 20 goals in 31 games. Drew Shore is no slouch himself. Shore has actually outscored Zucker with 21 goals of his own.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Drew's younger brother Nick Shore. The younger shore was great when the Pioneers in Madison and has centered Zucker's line most of the season.

PIONEER DEFENSE & GOALTENDER

The story of the season defensively for Denver has been the play of freshman Joey LaLeggia. The freshman blue-liner was voted the WCHA Rookie of the Year this week and certainly deserved the honor. LaLeggia was fairly quiet during the series in Madison, but I don't expect that to continue this weekend.

It should be interesting to see what the Pioneers do in between the pipes this weekend. Sam Brittain is fully returned from his knee injury that forced him to miss the first half of the season and has played admirably.

Brittain's numbers are solid through the eight games he's played this season, but since the Wisconsin series, Denver has split their minutes in goal between Brittain and Juho Olkinuora. I would be surprised if we don't see both goalies this weekend.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Denver enters this weekend with the 5th best power play in the entire nation. Wisconsin enters the weekend with the third worst penalty kill. Normally that would be awfully scary, but the Badgers played very well against Denver's power play a few weeks ago when they were in town.

Wisconsin's power play ranks 11th nationally and the Badgers are hoping the addition of Derek Lee back to the power play will give them an added spark. Denver's penalty kill ranks 26th in the country, around the middle of the pack.

THREE KEYS TO SUCCESS

  1. Win the special teams battle: As I just mentioned, Denver is pretty good with the man advantage so Wisconsin is going to have to stay out of the box and limit their opportunities. If Wisconsin is even, or plus in the special teams battle this weekend, you have to like their chances against the Pioneers.
  2. Hit everything that moves: Zucker and the Shore brothers are slippery, but the smaller ice surface should make it easier for the Badger defense to contain them. Every time they have the puck, Wisconsin must take the body.
  3. Shoot. Shoot. Shoot.: You miss 100% of the shots you don't take. The Badgers need to obviously get good scoring opportunities, but more importantly they need to get pucks and bodies to the net. Doesn't matter if they are pretty goals or ugly goals, they all count the same on the scoreboard.

COVERAGE

There is no TV this weekend but you can purchase the games online HERE. (Note: Make sure you cancel your subscription after the weekend or they will continue to charge you).

You can also listen to the games on the Badger Sports Network with Brian Posick.

POLLS

Denver is ranked #9 in both the USCHO.com, and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine polls. Wisconsin is un-ranked.

INJURIES

The Badgers return Derek Lee to the lineup but lost Jason Clark this week.

David Makowski and Beau Bennett are expected to miss this weekend for Denver.

LAST MEETING

Wisconsin and Denver split in Madison three weeks ago.

FUN FACT

Wisconsin is 9-1 against Denver in the WCHA playoffs.

PREDICTION

What an outstanding hockey series this should be. No one, and I mean NO ONE wanted to draw Wisconsin in the first round of the playoffs. The Badgers are arguably the most dangerous #10 seed in the history of the WCHA tournament.

I expect some outstanding hockey this weekend at Magness Arena.

I think the Badgers keep things rolling on the road on Friday night and put the Pioneers on their heels. Saturday night Denver is going to respond and get the better of the Badgers forcing a game three on Sunday. In game three I think the desperate Badgers are going to have enough juice to shock Denver and steal the series, earning a birth in the WCHA Final Five.

Friday: Wisconsin 4, Denver 2

Saturday: Denver 3, Wisconsin 1

Sunday: Wisconsin 5, Denver 3

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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