Wisconsin at Nebraska Omaha: Hockey Series Preview

UW will have to keep an eye on No. 17 Ryan Walters this weekend - Photo Credit: Matthew Semisch, Radio Free Omaha

With just four regular season games remaining, Wisconsin heads to Omaha this weekend to further its chances of securing home ice in the WCHA playoffs.

Shocking. Devastating. Embarrassing.

Monday's 3-2 overtime loss to Penn State, who was playing the final game of its inaugural season, was described as all of the above.

Regardless of the result, Wisconsin doesn't have time to wallow in self pity. The Badgers currently sit tied for sixth in the WCHA and have two regular-season series remaining against teams above them in the standings. Wisconsin's quest for home ice in the WCHA playoffs continues this weekend when the Badgers travel to Omaha to face the third-place Mavericks.

"Right now, we have to have the mentality of a defensive back in football," Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said this week. "Have to have a short term memory, with the way the game (Monday) ended up. Have to get back in the saddle."

The Badgers have had a couple days to think about the nauseating loss, but thankfully a short turnaround from Monday's game to Friday's gives the team an opportunity to redeem itself in a timely manner. That opportunity will also come on national television, as Friday's game will be broadcast live on the NBC Sports Network.

With the Badgers clinging for dear life in the home-ice race and Omaha just three points out of first place, points aren't going to be easy to come by this weekend at the Century Link Center.

"Points are at a premium this time of year," Eaves noted. "UNO wants them, we want them and we want to be playing well as we are going down the stretch."

WISCONSIN OFFENSE

The Badgers haven't had their full compliment of forwards all season, and that will continue this weekend as Derek Lee will not make the trip to Omaha. The senior center injured his knee in Monday's loss to the Nittany Lions, and will miss his sixth and seventh games of the season due to injuries.

Lee leads the Badgers in assists with 18 and is second in points with 21 in 27 games. In his place this weekend will likely be junior Jefferson Dahl, who will see his role increased significantly once again this season. Sophomore Brendan Woods will also be elevated from his fourth-line role.

Last weekend against Penn State, the Badgers recorded two of their highest shot totals of the season, including a season high 51 on Sunday night. Even so, there were opportunities missed due to players being too selfless with the puck on their stick in scoring areas.

On the Badger Hockey Digest this week, Eaves noted that he's looking for his guys to have more of a shooter's mentality.

"No one wants to be called selfish," Eaves said. "I think what happens in the game of hockey is that we over-pass because we don't want that label. But you want a shooter's mentality, and I think some of our guys have got to come to grips with that as players, that it's OK to shoot the puck."

WISCONSIN DEFENSE & GOALTENDERS

Sophomore goaltender Joel Rumpel was solid between the pipes once again last Sunday for the Badgers, stopping all 22 shots he faced in the 5-0 shutout victory. Since the start of the new year, Rumpel is second in the country in save percentage (.952) and first in goals against (1.32) while going 6-2-1 with three shutouts.

At this point in the season, it's time to hand the keys to the car over to Mr. Rumpel.

With the Badgers tied for 25th in the Pairwise ranking, they have to virtually win-out to have a shot at an at-large birth in the NCAA tournament. If Wisconsin is going to have a chance at doing that, it has to happen with its top option between the pipes the rest of the way.

One note I wanted to point out from Monday's game was the play of Eddie Wittchow on the back end. The freshman blue-liner had been a healthy scratch the night before, but played really well against Penn State when he got a chance.

The evolution of Wittchow's game was clear at times with the way he moved the puck. There were a couple instances where the 6-foot-4 Wittchow picked up the puck and carried it with urgency through traffic and made a play to get the puck in the offensive zone. That's the confidence the Badger coaching staff has been looking for all season.

NEBRASKA OMAHA OFFENSE

Wisconsin's defense will have one of its biggest tests of the season this weekend when it faces the high-octane offense from Nebraska Omaha. The Mavericks roll into the weekend with the second-ranked scoring offense in the country, averaging 3.50 goals per game.

The Mavericks are led up front by Hobey Baker candidate Ryan Walters, who currently leads the WCHA in scoring with 35 points in 24 league games, and 45 points in 32 games overall.

Walters isn't Dean Blais' only weapon up front, however. The Mavericks also feature 31-point producers in Matt White and Josh Archibald. White was a Badger killer last year when these two squads faced off in Madison, registering a goal and four assists on the weekend.

What makes the Mavericks dangerous is their depth up front. You can't focus solely on the Walters line, because Blais can also roll out guys like Dominic Zombo (27 points), Johnnie Searfoss (19) and Zahn Raubenheimer (14).

The UNO offense is also expected to see a boost from the return of Brock Montpetit to the lineup, who has been out for several weeks with an ankle injury. The Somerset, Wis., native was once committed to play for the Badgers, but backed out on his verbal, and eventually ended up in Omaha.

NEBRASKA OMAHA DEFENSE & GOALTENDERS

Big, Bigger, Biggest. The UNO defense is HUGE, averaging well over 6-foot-3 between its top six defensemen. That's obviously aided by the top pairing of 6-foot-8 Andrej Sustr and the 6-foot-6 Jaycob Megna. That pairing has been one of the top combinations in the WCHA this season, and it has made the duo very attractive NHL free agent options.

Sustr is the real prize, drawing in NHL scouts from virtually every team in the league this season. His size stands out on paper, but it's Sustr's ability to skate and play with the puck at that size that makes scouts drool.

UNO's biggest deficiency this season has been between the pipes. Blais thought he had a pretty solid situation when the season started with senior John Faulkner and freshman Anthony Stolarz, who was drafted in the second round of the NHL draft by the Philadelphia Flyers.

However, by mid-season Stolarz had departed the program for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, and Faulkner was letting in goals like he was trying to defend a soccer net. Since that time, Blais has brought back Ryan Massa, who had left the program following his freshman season, and also elevated third-string Dayn Belfour into a larger role.

Belfour looked like he may seize the starting job, but then he gave up three goals on just 11 shots last Saturday night against Alaska-Anchorage before being pulled in favor of Faulkner, who eventually picked up the win.

THREE KEYS TO SUCCESS VS NEBRASKA OMAHA

  1. Get pucks on net. I know I sound like a broken record, but this is a team that will give up goals if you put pucks on the goaltenders.
  2. Get pucks in behind the defense. I know this is contradictory to what I usually say, but it's going to be key this weekend to make those big d-men turn their backs and skate.
  3. Keep Walters and White to the outside. Wisconsin has done a good job of that for the most part this season, and it's going to be even more important with these two this weekend.

BY THE NUMBERS


Wisconsin
Nebraska Omaha
Record
14-11-7 (10-7-7 WCHA) 18-12-2 (14-8-2 WCHA)
Scoring Offense
2.34 (50th) 3.50 (2nd)
Scoring Defense
2.03 (5th) 2.75 (t-30th)
Power Play
10.9% (59th) 18.8% (21st)
Penalty Kill
79.8% (45th) 80.5% (40th)
Pairwise Ranking
T-25 22
RPI
20 15
KRACH
20
13
Ave. Height/Weight
6-feet-0.15 / 187.92 lbs. 6-feet-1.07" / 194.04 lbs.
Ave. Age
21 years, 5 months
21 years, 1 month

COVERAGE

Friday's game can be seen live on NBC Sports Network (6:30 p.m. CT start time). There is no TV for Saturday, but there is a web-stream available ($).

As always, the games can be found on the radio on the Badger Sports Network and WIBA 1310.

POLLS

Nebraska Omaha is ranked No. 13 in the USCHO.com poll and No. 15 in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll.

Wisconsin is ranked No. 16 in the USCHO.com poll and is receiving votes in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll.

INJURIES

Wisconsin will be without Derek Lee (knee) and Morgan Zulinick (thigh).

LAST MEETING

Wisconsin won, 6-3, at the Kohl Center, one night after dropping a 5-4 game in which it led 3-0 and 4-3.

FUN FACT

UNO boasts three Wisconsin natives on its roster, second-most in the WCHA behind the Badgers. They are Brock Montpetit (Somerset), Brent Gwidt (Minoqua) and Andrew Schmit (Grafton).

QUOTABLE

"We're going to be ready to play, and they'll be ready to play," UNO defenseman Bryce Aneloski said. "There are only four games left in their season as well, so I think everybody is going to be ready to go. It's just an exciting time right now." (OMAHA.COM)

PROJECTED LINEUP

Nic Kerdiles-Mark Zengerle-Tyler Barnes
Joseph LaBate-Jefferson Dahl-Michael Mersch
Ryan Little-Brendan Woods-Sean Little
Brad Nevin-Keegan Meuer-Matt Paape

Jake McCabe-Frankie Simonelli
Kevin Schulze-John Ramage
Eddie Wittchow-Joe Faust

Joel Rumpel
Landon Peterson

PREDICTION

Obviously, we've got two teams here who are desperate for points. UNO still believes it has a shot at winning the MacNaughton Cup, and the Badgers are trying to earn a home-ice spot in the WCHA playoffs. You know that Eaves is going to have the Badgers ready to play Friday night after the bad taste left in their mouths after the Penn State series.

I've got the Badgers winning the opener, with UNO coming back and earning the split on Saturday night.

Friday: Wisconsin 3, Nebraska Omaha 2

Saturday: Nebraska Omaha 2, Wisconsin 1

BADGER HOCKEY DIGEST

For more Wisconsin hockey coverage, follow Andy on Twitter (@AndyJohnsonB5Q)

You can also reach Andy via e-mail (AndyJohnsonB5Q@gmail.com)

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