Wisconsin hockey series preview: Badgers head to Michigan for Big Ten road series

Rick Osentoski - USA Today Sports

The Badgers look to improve on their 1-5 road record this weekend when they head to Michigan for a two-game Big Ten hockey series.

We're finally in the meaty portion of the Big Ten schedule, and Wisconsin finds itself in the thick of the conference race. The Badgers currently rank second in the league with 15 points, trailing leader Minnesota by seven points.

Six conference points are on the line once again this weekend, as Wisconsin (14-7-1, 5-3-0-0 Big Ten) travels to Ann Arbor to square off with Michigan (12-6-2, 4-2-0-0 Big Ten).

The Badgers split last weekend with Ohio Sate, knocking off the Buckeyes 5-3 on Friday, and dropping a 3-1 decision on Saturday. Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves noted this week he felt his team actually played better in the loss than they did in the win, as they out-chanced OSU by a 2-to-1 advantage in the finale.

"The effort was there, our smarts were there, our heart was there." Eaves said. "The things that we could control, we did, and we gave ourselves a chance to win that game."

The road games this weekend will be the first for the Badgers since they were swept in Minneapolis Nov. 29-30. For the season, UW is just 1-5 on the road, although the opponents they've faced -- Minnesota, Boston College, Boston University and Miami -- are nothing to sneeze at.

Despite their lousy record away from the Kohl Center this season, Eaves mentioned his guys are actually looking forward to taking the trip to Ann Arbor.

"It just simplifies your schedule," Eaves said. "You get in, you practice, you eat, go back to the hotel. You chill with your buddies, your roommates, your teammates. You get up, you practice, and you've got to eat, sleep, and play hockey for two days. Kind of simplifies it.

"That in itself can be refreshing, as experience has told us. When you're on the road a lot, it can wear you down, but the fact that we haven't been on the road for a while, I think the guys will be excited to get out there and have that kind of schedule."

Wisconsin was able to sweep Michigan three weeks ago when the Wolverines were in Madison, and things got a little feisty toward the end of UW's 3-1 win in the Saturday game. That should add to what is expected to be a raucous atmosphere this weekend.

"The people are right on top of you in Yost Arena," Eaves said. "If you can just imagine playing in our fieldhouse with an ice rink in it, that's what you got at Yost.

"It is one of the more fun atmospheres because you're in the game every second. The puck is a little bit like a pinball in an arcade game. It bounces off the boards. It's back into play. I think both teams will be excited to play again."

Wisconsin has set its sights on a winning the league and making a run at a national championship. Eaves noted weekends like this on the road can go a long way in forming a championship identity.

"These are the kinds of environments that forge your team," Eaves said. "If you're going to win a championship, you've got to be able to handle these types of environments and flourish and get the job done."

Wisconsin offense

It seems like every series we have to lead off this portion with an injury update, and this week is no different. Tyler Barnes has been ruled out for the weekend after crashing into the boards in the finale Saturday vs. Ohio State. Eaves called his status week-to-week during his press conference on Monday.

One player the Badgers are hoping to get back this weekend is Nic Kerdiles, who has been out since Jan. 4 with a separated shoulder. The sophomore center made the trip with the team to Ann Arbor, and is lobbying the coaches for an opportunity to play vs. the Wolverines. Eaves called Kerdiles a "game time decision" on Thursday.

UPDATE: Kerdiles is not in the Friday lineup for the Badgers

One player who has been standing out in recent weekends is Mark Zengerle, who has been the best player on the ice for Wisconsin a lot lately. The senior center had a goal and two assists last weekend, and is tied for the team lead in points with Michael Mersch with 24 in 22 games.

Eaves noted this week that it's been the play of Zengerle and his linemates away from the puck that has contributed to their recent success.

"He's doing it with the puck, and without the puck." Eaves said. "We've asked (Zengerle) and his linemates if they can improve their play without the puck about 10-15 percent. That will allow us to do the things we want to do in the long run, to have those championship moments.

"And he continues to play very well with the puck -- great patience, vision. He rang the post on Saturday, hit the crossbar on Friday. He's taking more shots, so I think the goals are going to come for him."

With Barnes unavailable this week, Eaves talked about playing either senior Sean Little or freshman Jedd Soleway on that line along side Zengerle and Morgan Zulinick.

"By putting (Little) there, he's going to create more space physically because he can go in the corners in a small area where he can get the puck and get to the front of the net. It gives the line a little different look."

Soleway provides a lot of the same characteristics that Little does, but might have a little more offensive upside, despite not having a goal yet this season. It wouldn't be surprising to see the freshman winger get an opportunity on the top line in hopes of stimulating his offensive game.

"Our hope is that the dam breaks and he just explodes," Eaves said. "Because he's the kind of guy that should be getting more goals and being more productive offensively with his size and his shot and those types of things."

Wisconsin defense and goaltenders

The Badgers continue to get offensive production from the back end, as two more defensemen scored goals on Friday. Jake McCabe got the Badgers on the board just 2:20 into the weekend vs. Ohio State, and Joe Faust added the game-winning goal :42 seconds into the third period on Friday. McCabe also had an assist in the opener, while senior captain Frankie Simonelli was credited with helpers in both games.

Wisconsin's blue-liner's have been one of the most potent groups in terms of production in the country with an average of 2.64 points per game. The Badgers' defensive core ranks second in the nation in points per game, trailing only New Hampshire (2.68 points per game).

Junior goaltender Joel Rumpel saw his nine-game winning streak snapped in Wisconsin's 3-1 loss on Saturday. Rumpel allowed two goals on 21 shots in the loss before an empty-net goal sealed the win for the Buckeyes. Despite the setback, Rumpel still leads the country in winning percentage (.846).

Rumpel's 1.95 goals-against average ranks him 6th in the country, while his .927 save percentage is 15th.

Michigan offense

JT Compher was a player we singled out when we talked about the Wolverines a few weeks ago, and he'll be a player to keep an eye on once again this weekend. Compher currently leads Michigan in scoring with nine goals and 20 points in 20 games.

The Badgers were able to hold the freshman center in check three weeks ago, not allowing the former U.S. NTDP product to record a point in Madison. Michigan State wasn't nearly as successful last weekend, as the 5-foot-11, 185-pound pivot got loose for three goals and five points on the weekend, including a four-point night in the finale.

"JT was very important to us (in the Michigan State series)," Sophomore Andrew Copp told the Detroit News this week. "He was all over the place all weekend, and I think you'll see his confidence will start growing, and as his confidence goes our team's will start growing, so I like where we're at going into the series."

Copp is a fine player in his own right, currently leading the Wolverines in goals on the season with 10 in 18 games. Copp has recorded points in five consecutive games, and along with Compher, gives Michigan a strong 1-2 punch down the middle at the center position.

"I think after what happened at Madison we're looking forward to getting back at these guys (Badgers)," Copp said. "It's two big games for us, especially in terms of Big Ten play."

Third-line winger Luke Moffatt was one of the best players on the ice for Michigan when the Wolverines were in Madison a few weeks ago. The senior registered goals in both games, including Michigan's only tally in the finale.

Other forwards the Badgers will have to be aware of this weekend include top-6 wingers Phil Di Giuseppe -- who skates with Compher, and last season's leading scorer Alex Guptill -- who plays on the left wing of Copp's line. Freshman left-winger Tyler Motte also has the ability to put the puck away.

Michigan defense and goaltenders

Freshman goaltender Zach Nagelvoort has taken the reigns between the pipes for the Wolverines, starting the past four games -- two losses vs. Wisconsin, and two wins over Michigan State.

While he wasn't particularly sharp in Madison -- allowing seven goals on 59 shots -- his overall numbers are actually very good. For the season, Nagelvoort carries a 1.98 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage.

Defensively, you can expect to see a lot of Mac Bennett on the blueline. The senior is a stabilizing force for a defense corps that lost Jon Merrill and Jacob Trouba to the NHL over the summer.

Freshmen Michael Downing and Nolan De Jong have been good in stretches this season, and Kevin Clare is a veteran with close to 100 games under his belt.

One of the problems for Michigan this season has been the lack of offense from its back-end. The Wolverines have produced just three goals from defensemen this season, and no rear-guard on the roster has more than eight points this year.

Wisconsin, on the other hand, has received 17 goals from its defensemen, with four players -- Jake McCabe, Joe Faust, Frankie Simonelli and Kevin Schulze in double digits in points.

Special teams

Special teams continue to be a hot-button topic for Wisconsin, especially the power play. The Badgers have been noticeably ineffective on the man-advantage during Kerdiles' absence from the lineup. In the 7 1/2 games Kerdiles has missed due to injury and the World Junior Championships, the Badgers are just 3-for-32 on the power play (9.38 percent).

That has to get better.

While its overall numbers aren't horrible at 19.7 percent on the season, Michigan's power play was held in check last weekend vs. the Spartans, going 0-6 on the weekend. The Wolverines were a bit better against the Badgers three weeks ago, notching two of their three goals on the weekend with the extra skater.

By the numbers


WISCONSIN
MICHIGAN
RECORD
14-7-1 (5-3-0-0 Big Ten)
12-6-2, 4-2-0-0 Big Ten
SCORING OFFENSE
3.50/gm (5th)
2.85/gm (28th)
SCORING DEFENSE
2.73/gm (29th)
2.30/gm (12th)
POWER PLAY
15.3% (46th) 19.7% (22nd)
PENALTY KILL
83.0% (20th)
80.7% (37th)
PAIRWISE RANKING
No. 13
No. 10
RPI
No. 13
No. 10
KRACH
No. 13
No. 10
AVG. HEIGHT/WEIGHT
5'11.92, 190.15 pounds 6'0.36, 192.11 pounds
AVG. AGE
21 years, 10 months
20 years, 10 months

Coverage

NOTE: 5:30 p.m. CT starts both nights.

Friday: Big Ten Network (Fred Pletch, Rob Andringa)
Saturday: NBC Sports Network (Dan Kelly, Rob Andringa)

Radio coverage will be provided on WIBA 1310 with Brian Posick doing play-by-play and Paul Capobianco on color. You can also listen via the Badger Sports Network online.

There is a free video stream on Friday only through BTN2Go.com.

Polls

Wisconsin is ranked No. 9 in both the USCHO.com and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine polls.

Michigan is ranked No. 12 in both the USCHO.com and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine polls.

Injuries

Wisconsin will be without the services of Tyler Barnes this weekend. Nic Kerdiles (shoulder) has been ruled out for Friday. No decision on his status for Saturday at this time.

Michigan will be without Kevin Lohan (knee).

Last meeting

Wisconsin swept Michigan three weeks ago in Madison, 5-2, 2-1.

Fun fact

Wisconsin has played on a small ice surface (200x85) just one weekend this season, a split at then-No. 8 Miami. Both games this weekend will be on the small sheet, as well as the Badgers' final three road series at Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State.

Quotable

"I would think that (the crowd) would be really, really rowdy come Friday night. If I was a hockey fan I'd be losing my mind, chomping at the bit to get in here. Hopefully that's what we'll see." -- Michigan captain Mac Bennett

Projected lineup

Morgan Zulinick-Mark Zengerle-Sean Little
Brad Navin-Jefferson Dahl-Michael Mersch
Grant Besse-Joseph LaBate-Jedd Soleway
Aidan Cavallini-Keegan Meuer-Matt Paape

Kevin Schulze-Frankie Simonelli
Jake McCabe-Joe Faust
Eddie Wittchow-Chase Drake

Joel Rumpel
Landon Peterson

Big Ten standings

CONFERENCE OVERALL
PTS GP W L T SOW GF GA GP W L T GF GA
Minnesota 22 8 7 0 1 0 26 14 24 18 2 4 92 49
Wisconsin 15 8 5 3 0 0 29 21 22 14 7 1 77 60
Michigan
12 6 4 2 0 0 19 18 20 12 6 2 57 46
Michigan State
10 8 2 4 2 2 17 20 23 8 12 3 53 56
Ohio State
7 8 2 5 1 0 21 24 22 12 9 1 77 62
Penn State
0 6 0 6 0 0 10 25 20 4 15 1 45 76

Badger Hockey Digest

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