After the Badgers' 1-7-2 start to the season, if I had told you that going into the last weekend of the season Wisconsin had a chance to win a share of the MacNaughton Cup, you would have thought I was on crazy pills.
Well, here we are.
With just two games remaining in its final season as a member of the WCHA, Wisconsin is four points out of first place with league-leading St. Cloud State coming to Madison. The two clubs will play a pair of throwback style games at the old Coliseum due to the WIAA boys basketball tournament taking over the Kohl Center.
The Badgers weathered many storms this season to even put themselves in this position. From freshman Nic Kerdiles' 10-game NCAA suspension to injuries from multiple offensive weapons and the departure of assistant coach Bill Butters, who resumed his duties in the ministry.
And yet here we are.
While Wisconsin has played for two national championships -- winning one -- during Mike Eaves' tenure at Wisconsin, the Badgers have never won a league regular-season title. Eaves talked about how tough it is to capture the cup this week.
"Coach Johnson used to say that winning a WCHA regular-season title is the hardest thing to do because it was done over time," Eaves said in his weekly press conference. "You had to be good for a long time. You had to build a resume that said you were a good team over a whole season."
"It would be great to do it because it's such a tall mountain to climb. We have a shot. We need to do our part. Other things need to happen. But we're there battling for it."
Once again, Wisconsin is expected to be without Derek Lee this weekend after he injured his knee in the Penn State series. The senior center tops the Badgers in assists with 18, and he is still fourth in scoring despite missing seven games due to injury.
Without Lee available, Brendan Woods is expected to be elevated into a larger role. The sophomore center was bumped up to Lee's spot between Joseph LaBate and Michael Mersch, and the trio accounted for three of Wisconsin's four goals last Friday, including Woods' game-winner.
Mersch also picked up his 20th goal of the season over this past weekend, marking the first time a Badger has reached that plateau since the 2010 season. Mersch is currently one of just five players in the nation with 20 goals or more.
Another player who has been coming on for the Badgers lately is Mark Zengerle. The junior center has 12 points in his past 10 games after going through a mini-slump earlier this year. Zengerle's 12 points since Feb. 1 top all WCHA skaters, as does his +/- rating of +10.
WISCONSIN DEFENSE & GOALTENDERS
Last week, we talked about handing the keys to the car over to goaltender Joel Rumpel, and nothing has changed. The sophomore net-minder played well in Wisconsin's sweep over Nebraska Omaha last weekend, stopping 51 of 56 shots in the series.
Defensively, the Badgers played very stingy against the Mavericks. UNO came into the weekend with the second-highest scoring club in the country, and Wisconsin held them well under their goals per game pace.
Once again, Wisconsin will be challenged this weekend, as St. Cloud comes in with the third-highest scoring offense in the country. Wisconsin will need to move the puck well and keep the puck to the outside when SCSU attacks the offensive zone.
ST. CLOUD STATE OFFENSE
As previously mentioned, the St. Cloud offense is one of the top groups in the entire country. The Huskies are led up front by fifth-year senior Drew LeBlanc, who is returning after a gruesome leg injury suffered early last season in a game vs Wisconsin.
LeBlanc is one of the favorites for the Hobey Baker award, which is handed out annually to the best player in college hockey. LeBlanc comes into the weekend eighth in the country in points per game and leads the country in assists per game.
LeBlanc isn't without help, of course. Senior Ben Hanowski is one of the top offensive weapons in the WCHA, as is junior center Nic Dowd, who hails from the hockey hotbed of Alabama.
SCSU is very deep up front and has been getting outstanding production from a pair of freshmen in Jonny Brodzinski and Kalle Kossila. Brodzinski has recorded 17 goals on the year, while Kossila has 31 points in his rookie campaign.
ST. CLOUD DEFENSE & GOALTENDERS
Defensively St. Cloud features the top blue-liner in the WCHA and possibly the country in Nick Jensen. The Detroit Red Wings draft pick has been one of the top players in the league for a while, and he will likely be playing pro hockey next season.
Jensen logs a lot of ice-time and will see major minutes against Wisconsin's top six this weekend. The thing that makes Jensen so special is his ability to posses the puck and control the game. He's not very big, but he can skate and plays perfect position defensively.
Two other defensemen to keep an eye on this weekend are Kevin Gravel and Andrew Prochno. Gravel plays a more physical, defensive game, while Prochno has some offensive flare to his game and is one of the better puck-movers in the conference.
Between the pipes, St. Cloud features goaltender Ryan Faragher. The sophomore has taken the No. 1 job full time after Mike Lee chose to turn pro following last season. Faragher stumbled last weekend against Michigan Tech, but has been solid for the majority of the season.
THREE KEYS TO SUCCESS VS ST. CLOUD STATE
- Faceoffs. St. Cloud features some of the best faceoff guys in the country. LeBlanc, Dowd, Hanowski (who plays wing, as well) and Morley are all .500-or-better faceoff guys. Wisconsin will need to be better in this area than it has been most of the season.
- Quick, short passes. The Coliseum is considerably smaller (195x85) than the Kohl Center (200x97). In a small rink, everything is faster. Short, quick passes are key in small rinks.
- Be physical. The Huskies are a finesse team, and playing in a smaller rink will create more opportunities for body contact. If the Badgers get on them early that will affect how SCSU attacks the zone.
BY THE NUMBERS
||St. Cloud State
||16-11-7 (12-7-7 WCHA)||20-13-1 (17-8-1 WCHA)|
||2.5 (39th)||3.32 (3rd)
||2.06 (5th)||2.53 (t-22nd)
||11.9% (56th)||16.8% (31st)
||79.3% (48th)||82.6% (30th)
||6-feet-0.15 / 187.92 lbs.||5-feet-11.54 / 185.46 lbs.|
||21 years, 5 months
||21 years, 9 months|
Both games will be shown live on FS Wisconsin.
As always, the games can be found on the radio on the Badger Sports Network and WIBA 1310.
St. Cloud is ranked No. 8 in both the USCHO.com poll and the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll.
Wisconsin is ranked No. 14 in both the USCHO.com poll and the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll.
Wisconsin will be without Derek Lee (knee) and Morgan Zulinick (thigh).
Wisconsin was swept by the Huskies in Madison last season, 5-1, 2-1.
The Badgers last played games at the Coliseum during the 2005 WCHA playoffs, when the Badgers earned a 2-1 series victory over Alaska Anchorage. The Coliseum served as Wisconsin's home rink from 1967 to 1998.
"They've got good goaltending. They've got size. They have a lot of things going for themselves right now. They are where they are for good reasons. But, again, they have to come in -- The one thing that keeps popping up in athletics is no matter what the rankings say where teams are, you have to play. It's the best reality show out there. We have to play the No. 1 team in our conference, and we have a chance to do some things here. We're looking forward to that opportunity." -- Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves
Nic Kerdiles-Mark Zengerle-Tyler Barnes
Joseph LaBate-Brendan Woods-Michael Mersch
Ryan Little-Jefferson Dahl-Sean Little
Brad Nevin-Keegan Meuer-Matt Paape
Jake McCabe-Frankie Simonelli
Kevin Schulze-John Ramage
Eddie Wittchow-Joe Faust
Well, we've been waiting for an opportunity like this one for a while. This is the biggest weekend of the season, and the Badgers still have an outside shot at winning their fist ever MacNaughton Cup of the Mike Eaves era. That said, they're playing the top team in the WCHA and will need to sweep them to even have a chance.
I do think that Wisconsin has an advantage in terms of this being played at the Coliseum on the smaller ice. St. Cloud likes to get up and down, and the smaller surface plays more to the style of the Badgers.
I may be off my rocker here, but I think the Badgers take three points this weekend.
Friday: Wisconsin 3, St. Cloud 2
Saturday: Wisconsin 3, St. Cloud 3
BADGER HOCKEY DIGEST
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