When you start the season 1-7-2, you don't leave yourself a lot of room for error the rest of the way. Thankfully for the Wisconsin hockey team, the Badgers have been able to play some of their best hockey since that time, losing just five of their final 26 contests.
When meeting with the media this week, UW head coach Mike Eaves noted his Badgers have been playing with a playoff mindset for months because they've had no other choice.
"The way we play and the mindset we've had for so long has been playoff mentality," Eaves said. "The number of close games we have been in and the way we've played in those games has dictated a certain mindset, a certain way of playing."
"We've been there for a while, and we just need to continue that. That will be an asset for us."
Wisconsin (17-12-7, 13-8-7 WCHA) is hoping that mentality carries over to the actual playoffs, when the fourth-seeded Badgers host ninth seeded Minnesota-Duluth (14-7-5, 10-13-5 WCHA) in a best-of-three WCHA first-round playoff series at the Kohl Center this weekend.
Despite playing desperate hockey the past few months, Eaves expects the intensity to ratchet up even higher this weekend. Wisconsin's bench boss compared it to that of the NHL playoffs this week.
"[Gary Shuchuk] and I were reminiscing about what's it like to play in the National Hockey League in the playoffs, and your very first game, you go, 'Who turned up the volume?'" Eaves said. "The playoffs for college will be similar."
If the Badgers are to have success this weekend, they are going to have to find a way to slow the potent UMD power play. Currently, the Bulldogs rank fourth in the country, converting on 24.1 percent of their chances. They've been especially good the past three weekends, accumulating 14 goals on the man advantage.
"They have good players that are good with the puck," Eaves said. "They can take what's given. They can pull the trigger and score."
At this point in the season, Wisconsin is playing do-or-die hockey. If the Badgers don't advance to the Final Five in St. Paul next weekend, their season will be over as they don't currently possess the resume to be selected for the NCAA tournament.
"We're battling to play for one more month, the best month of hockey," Eaves said. "We know we play this weekend. In order to build our resume for the tournament, we have to keep winning."
Unfortunately, we have to lead this segment off talking about injuries once again. There have been no updates out of the UW camp, but as of Wednesday, Derek Lee had yet to skate on the knee that he injured against Penn State on Feb. 25th.
At this point it seems unlikely that Lee will be available for the Badgers, but I've seen stranger things happen. If Lee can't go, Brendan Woods will be back between Joseph LaBate and Michael Mersch. That unit has played very well since being put together two weeks ago in Omaha.
Last Saturday, Mersch was especially good in notching two goals, including one of the highlight reel variety. The performance was a good response to a disappointing effort on Friday night.
Wisconsin's other top offensive line has also elevated its play over the past month. In their past eight games together, Nic Kerdiles, Mark Zengerle and Tyler Barnes have accumulated 30 points. That's a good sign for a group that struggled together early in the season.
WISCONSIN DEFENSE AND GOALTENDERS
Overall, the Badgers' defense played very well against St. Cloud last week, considering how potent the Huskies can be as one of the top offensive clubs in the nation. Wisconsin gave up just three even-strength goals on the weekend to a team averaging 3.31 goals-per-game.
Wisconsin's ability to limit shots against was the biggest key to the weekend. The Badgers allowed just 24 shots on goal Friday, and 20 on Saturday.
The criticism, if there is one, would be the soft goal that Joel Rumpel allowed on Friday night to Nick Jensen. The goal was the game-winner, and it was scored from below the faceoff circle to Rumpel's left.
The good news for Wisconsin is the way Rumpel responded to the goal. The sophomore played great on Saturday night, allowing just one five-on-five goal before a late goal in the last minute after St. Cloud pulled its goaltender that didn't have an effect on the outcome.
You should expect to see Rumpel back between the pipes this weekend for the Badgers as they attempt to slow down the Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs are one of the rare teams in the WCHA that is led offensively by a pair of freshmen forwards. All-WCHA rookie team selection Tony Cameranesi and classmate Austin Farley lead UMD in scoring with 34 points.
Those two are paired on one of the Bulldogs' top offensive lines along with junior Joe Basaraba, who has notched 10 goals on the season.
While the Cameranesi line is certainly one to keep an eye on, don't forget about the unit centered by Caleb Herbert. A Washington Capitals draft pick, Herbert has underachieved this season but has 10 points in his last eight games.
The Herbert line also features UMD's leading goal scorer Mike Seidel, who paces the Bulldogs with 17 tallies on the season.
MINNESOTA-DULUTH DEFENSE AND GOALTENDERS
The back-end is where the Bulldogs have had most of their problems. Freshman Andy Welinski came in with some name recognition and was named to the All-Rookie team after a solid first season. Welinski will be paired up with senior Drew Olson this weekend.
Senior Wade Bergman is another talented blue-liner on the UMD roster. In addition to his defensive duties, Bergman can chip in a little on the offensive end as well, as is evidenced by his 17 points this season.
The Bulldogs' biggest problem has been finding a consistent goaltender to fill the shoes of departed senior Kenny Reiter. The two in charge of that task, junior Aaron Crandall and freshman Matt McNeely, have had roller-coaster seasons for UMD.
The expected starter for Friday's contest is Crandall, a one-time Wisconsin recruit before a falling-out with the Badgers' coaching staff. Crandall has recorded shutouts in his past two starts, but has a save percentage of just .894 for the season.
THREE KEYS TO SUCCESS VS MINNESOTA-DULUTH
- Stay out of the penalty box. The Bulldogs have one of the top power plays in the country, and the Badgers can't win by giving them opportunities with the man advantage.
- Be physical. A lot of the UMD forwards -- Crandall, Cameranesi, Farley, Seidel -- are all under 6-foot. Be physical with them and set the tone early.
- Start quick. Get the crease creatures involved early and often. The Kohl Center can be a great place when it's rocking; use the fans to your advantage.
BY THE NUMBERS
||(17-12-7, 13-8-7 WCHA)||(14-7-5, 10-13-5 WCHA)|
||2.5 (39th)||2.69 (33rd)
||2.11 (5th)||2.83 (t-36th)
||12.4% (55th)||24.1% (24th)
||80.0% (43rd)||82.1% (34th)
||6-feet-0.15 / 187.92 lbs.||5-feet-11.92" / 188.88 lbs.|
||21 years, 6 months
||21 years, 9 months|
There is television coverage on Saturday only on the Wisconsin Channel. Friday's and potentially Sunday's games will be streamed on insidebadgersports.com for a fee.
As always, the games can be found on the radio on the Badger Sports Network and WIBA 1310.
Wisconsin is ranked No. 14 in the USCHO.com poll and No. 15 in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll.
Minnesota-Duluth is not ranked.
Morgan Zulinick (thigh) is out. Derek Lee (Knee) is doubtful.
Minnesota-Duluth is reporting no injuries.
Wisconsin took three points in Duluth earlier this season, shutting out the Bulldogs, 2-0, on Friday, and tying, 2-2, on Saturday.
This is just the third time these two teams have faced off in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, with the last time coming in 1991. Wisconsin is 4-0 vs. UMD in the first round of the WCHA playoffs all-time.
"I give our guys credit, our mindset is much better than a month ago. Everyone's goal is to play their best at the end of the season and we finished the regular season on a positive note."--UMD Head Coach Scott Sandelin (Duluth News Tribune)
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
Both teams are playing for their hockey lives at this point, as the loser will see its season come to an end. On paper, the Badgers have the better squad and have been the better team over the second half of the season. I think we should expect two fairly low-scoring, hard-hitting playoff games.
I have the Badgers advancing to St. Paul, but I think it's going to take three games for them to do so.
Friday: Wisconsin 3, UMD 2
Saturday: UMD 2, Wisconsin 1
Sunday: Wisconsin 4, UMD 2
BADGER HOCKEY DIGEST
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