Wisconsin has played four league games in the new Big Ten hockey conference, but the conference landscape changes are just now finally starting to feel real. The Badgers went on the road earlier this season to Minnesota and hosted Penn State in November, but the Gophers are long time rivals and the Nittany Lions were in town last season for a non-conference series.
With Michigan coming to Madison this weekend for a two-game conference series, it's finally starting to feel like Big Ten hockey.
"Finally, it's here," Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves said this week.
The Badgers (11-6-1, 2-2-0-0 Big Ten) enter the series one week after a somewhat disappointing split at home against Alaska Anchorage last week. A lackluster effort led to a loss Friday, but UW played better on Saturday to earn a much needed victory.
Michigan (10-4-2, 2-0-0-0 Big Ten) was on a bye last weekend, and was swept its previous time out at the Great Lakes Invitational by Western Michigan and Michigan State. In fact, the Wolverines haven't picked up a tally in the win column since Dec. 2nd.
Even still, Michigan is a dangerous team.
"They bring energy -- they have good players," Eaves said. "Watching the video, they are no different than any other Michigan team we've had come in here.
"It's going to be a fun weekend of hockey for our fans to watch."
As we wrote earlier this week, the Badgers will be without the services of sophomore center Nic Kerdiles and senior winger Sean Little. Both are dealing with shoulder injuries and are considered week-to-week. Little is ahead of Kerdiles in terms of rehab, but neither will be ready when the puck drops at the Kohl Center this weekend.
There's no denying the importance of both to the lineup. Without Little on Friday the Badgers lacked their normal gusto that he has the ability to spark. Obviously no one needs to explain why Kerdiles' loss is huge. With Kerdiles in a Badger sweater over the past two years Wisconsin is 29-11-6. Without him? 3-8-2.
"I think in these times of injuries, it looks like an adverse situation, but this is where people kind of flourish -- people have to step up," Eaves said. "You're not looking over your shoulder, ‘where's Nic?' We have to go out and play, so we need guys to step to the forefront."
One of those guys that needs to step up this weekend is junior Joseph LaBate, who finds himself back at center with Kerdiles on the shelf. LaBate is on pace for his best season as a Badger, but has just one point over his past five games.
LaBate will start the weekend centering a line with freshmen Grant Besse and Jedd Soleway on his wings. The other lines show Mark Zengerle between Morgan Zulinick and Tyler Barnes, Jefferson Dahl centering Brad Navin and Michael Mersch, while Keegan Meuer is the pivot on the line with Matt Paape and Aidan Cavallini.
Wisconsin defense and goaltenders
Stepping up big on Satuday defensively was junior alternate captain Jake McCabe, who admittedly wasn't on top of his game in the series opener.
"He was disappointed with his play on Friday. We sat down and took a look at some video stuff, pointed out some things," Eaves said. "I think sometimes Jake has the tendency, like a lot of young athletes, they think by doing more, they are accomplishing more, and really that's not the case. Sometimes less is more. Just wait for the game to unfold and come to you -- and he did that to a much higher degree on Saturday night, and the game unfolded for him."
Eaves specifically pointed to a body check he laid Saturday where he let the player come to him before exploding into the body.
Overall, McCabe may have been Wisconsin's best player in the finale, and was rewarded with the first two-goal game of his collegiate career. He also picked up an assist in the victory.
The coaching staff has shuffled the defensive pairs this week citing "staleness." McCabe is now working with senior Joe Faust, while captain Frankie Simonelli is paired up with the smooth skating Kevin Schulze. Eddie Wittchow and Chase Drake remain teamed up on the third pairing.
Landon Peterson started Friday's game between the pipes, but was replaced between the second and third periods. Eaves noted after Friday's game he was looking to ignite a spark in his lifeless team.
Rumpel started Saturday, stopping 26 of 29 shots and picking up his eighth win of the season. Rumpel is expected to get the nod again for the Badgers in the opener against Michigan.
A.J. Treais and Kevin Lynch were considered big losses for the Wolverines last season, but Michigan has been supported by a group of young forwards led by freshman JT Compher from the U.S. NTDP. Compher centers the top line along side last year's leading scorer Alex Guptill.
One player Michigan was without when they were swept at the GLI was sophomore Andrew Copp, who was with Kerdiles representing the U.S. at the WJC in Sweden. Copp returns to the lineup this weekend to provide the Wolverines a solid 1-2 punch down the middle.
Other forwards to keep an eye on this weekend include freshman winger Tyler Motte, who has five goals on the season, and junior winger Phil Di Giuseppe. Sophomore Boo Nieves hasn't put up the point totals that were expected after being selected 59th overall in the 2012 draft by the New York Rangers, but his skill set can be trouble when matching up against the oppositions lower lines.
Michigan has been a very strong team early in games this season, outscoring opponents 17-6 in first periods this year. Shutting down the Wolverines early will be a key to picking up points this weekend.
Michigan defense and goaltenders
Michigan's biggest question mark heading into the season was how they were going to be defensively after having to replace Jon Merrill and Jacob Trouba, who both left school early to sign NHL contracts.
So far, the Wolverines have been pretty solid on the back end, led by senior captain Mac Bennett. Michigan was handed some adversity when Kevin Lohan was lost to a significant knee injury, but overall, it's tough to find many complaints with this unit through the first half.
Freshmen Michael Downing and Nolan De Jong must continue to get better. Senior Kevin Clare will also likely shoulder a lot of minutes on the blueline this weekend.
Between the pipes, sophomore Steve Racine entered the season as the clear-cut No. 1, but was injured in October, leading to an increased role for freshman Zach Nagelvoort, who has more than exceeded expectations.
Nagelvoort is 6-3-1 on the season with a 1.78 goals-against average and .940 save percentage, excellent numbers for a freshman goaltender.
Wisconsin showed some flashes of improvement on the power play last weekend, especially when they went 2-for-4 on Friday night. An 0-for-6 performance Saturday indicates they still have some work to do, however, and not having Kerdiles on the top power play isn't likely to help things this weekend.
Michigan's power play is very respectable at 21 percent, but the Badgers have been getting better killing penalties all season long and are now ranked in the top 20 in the country in that category.
By the numbers
||11-6-1 (2-2-0-0 Big Ten)
||10-4-2 (2-0-0-0 Big Ten)
||16.4% (38th)||21.0% (20th)
||5'11.92, 190.15 pounds||6'0.36, 192.11 pounds
||21 years, 10 months
||20 years, 10 months|
Friday's game has a late start time (8 p.m. CT), and can be seen on the Big Ten Network withon the call with Ben Clymer and Jay Wilson.
Saturday's game will be on the Fox Sports Wisconsin alternate channel with Paul Braun calling the game with Barry Richter.
Saturday's game will also be on tape delay on the Wisconsin Channel with Robb Vogel and Ron Vincent handling the announcing duties.
On the radio side, Friday's special treat will be PB making his return to radio with the legendary Bill Howard. The duo called Wisconsin games for years, so that should be a lot of fun for fans.
Brian Posick will be back in the radio booth Saturday, and will be paired up with Ian Perrin. Both games can be heard on WIBA 1310 and on the Badger Radio Network.
Streams of the games online will be on BTN2Go.com.
Wisconsin is ranked No. 14 in both the USCHO and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine polls.
Michigan is ranked No. 8 in the USCHO poll and No. 9 in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll.
Wisconsin: Nic Kerdiles (shoulder) and Sean Little (shoulder) are OUT.
Michigan: Kevin Lohan (torn ACL) is OUT.
Wisconsin beat Michigan in the 1977 NCAA title game in Detroit's Olympia Stadium. Current UW head coach Mike Eaves had three assists in the victory, including the primary assist on the overtime winner.
Morgan Zulinick-Mark Zengerle-Tyler Barnes
Brad Navin-Jefferson Dahl-Michael Mersch
Grant Besse-Joseph LaBate-Jedd Soleway
Matt Paape-Keegan Meuer-Aidan Cavallini
Jake McCabe-Joe Faust
Kevin Schulze-Frankie Simonelli
Eddie Wittchow-Chase Drake
Badger Hockey Digest
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