Conference realignment may have kept North Dakota off Wisconsin's schedule this season, but fate had other plans. The two former WCHA rivals are set to match up in the first round of the NCAA playoffs on Friday, which certainly adds to this weekend's excitement.
UW is the top seed at the Midwest regional in Cincinnati, Ohio., this weekend, while North Dakota checks in as the No. 4. The other side of the regional has 2nd-seeded Ferris State taking on Colgate.
In a curious twist of fate, it was the Badgers who allowed UND into the NCAA tournament. Had UW not beaten Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game last Saturday, North Dakota would not have earned an at-large berth into this weekend's NCAA tournament.
"It's almost as if the hockey gods made sure it happened this year that we were going to play them," Wisconsin junior defenseman Jake McCabe said. "Obviously they are huge rivals. They play very similar to us, they're hard to play against and it'll be a fun one."
Despite not playing against each other this season, Wisconsin and UND are very familiar with each other, which should take the "feeling out" process out of the early stages of Friday's NCAA quarterfinal match up.
"There's a rich history of great games and key moments," UW head coach Mike Eaves said. "Coming to the regional where you usually have an unknown opponent, this time we have history with our opponent. Both teams will be able to jump into the deep end and just play.
"Usually, you got to go in and spar and see what things they do. Both teams will be able to play full-on."
The Badgers are back in the NCAA tournament for the second season in a row, and are hoping to use the experience they gained last season in a loss vs. UMass-Lowell to help them in this tournament.
"Last year caught us by surprise a little bit and it was something we weren't ready for," senior center Jefferson Dahl said. "The way our team has carried ourselves this year has prepared us for this regional."
The Badgers enter the weekend as the top seed in the regional, and rightfully so according to North Dakota head coach Dave Hakstol.
"We're an underdog in this game against a really good, veteran team," Hakstol said. "But we have the opportunity to play (Friday), and that's exciting for our group of guys within our locker room. And it's a fairly confident, loose bunch within our locker room."
The Badgers' depth is readily apparent within their top two lines that feature four seniors and a couple underclassmen who have been playing some of the best hockey of their Wisconsin careers of late.
UW's top group, which is centered by Mark Zengerle, was a major factor when Wisconsin won the Big Ten championship last weekend in St. Paul. Zengerle scored the game winning goal in overtime during the title game, and Tyler Barnes notched the game-tying goal late in the third period. The underclassman of the group, Nic Kerdiles, had three assists in the championship game and has 20 points in his last nine games.
What makes the Badgers so dangerous is the ability to create offense with their second wave as well. Michael Mersch ranks seventh in the country in goals this season with 22, and helped Wisconsin advance to last weekend's title game with two goals in the semifinals in a 2-1 win over Penn State.
Mersch's line, which also features center Jefferson Dahl and left-winger Morgan Zulinick was strong all weekend in St. Paul. Dahl helped set up the game winning goal on Friday, and notched a crucial goal of his own to help lead the comeback on Saturday. Zulinick had a power play goal in the championship, and was as strong on the forecheck last weekend as he's ever been in a Wisconsin sweater.
Wisconsin defense and goaltenders
Everything on UW's back-end starts with Joel Rumpel between the pipes. If the Badgers are going to make a run at championship No. 7, Rumpel has to play at an elite level. Fortunately for Wisconsin, the Swift Current, Saskatchewan native has that ability.
Rumpel wasn't outstanding for the Badgers at the Big Ten tournament, but he stepped up when they needed him most. The junior netminder has taken his game to another level this season, and UW needs all that and more from him this weekend in Cincinnati.
One player I thought had an outstanding weekend in St. Paul was Kevin Schulze. He's rarely talked about because he doesn't put up huge point totals, but the sophomore blueliner continues to impress every time he's on the ice. Schulze is the best skater on the Wisconsin roster, and isn't afraid to challenge attacking forwards, despite his diminutive stature.
Obviously Jake McCabe must play well for the Badgers to have success this weekend, and the same can be said for senior captain Frankie Simonelli. Those two players have been rocks all season along the Wisconsin blueline, this weekend can be no different.
North Dakota offense
This is a rare North Dakota squad in which they don't have any superstars up front. We're accustomed to seeing the Ryan Duncan's, TJ Oshie's, Danny Kristo's, Matt Frattin's and Jonathan Toews types. While UND may not have that star up front, so to speak, they are a well balanced offense who gets contributions from a lot of different players.
One name you're likely familiar is Rocco Grimaldi, who leads the team in scoring with 36 points this season. The shifty center is a terror who plays a 200-foot hockey game. He's not afraid to go coast-to-coast with the puck on his blade, but also has the ability to create for his teammates as well.
Grimaldi also doubles as an ace faceoff man, as his 59.1 winning percentage this season ranks second all-time in UND history.
Michael Parks was named NCHC second-team all conference this season, and is second on the club in goals (11) and points (27).
Junior forward Connor Gaarder played a big role for UND as they were able to capture a win in the third-place game of the NCHC tournament last weekend. The Edina, Minn., native notched two goals, and has seven goals and eight assists over his last 28 games after not registering a point in his first 11 games of the season.
While he won't stand out in terms of points, Stephane Pattyn is the physical presence that gives this North Dakota club energy. He's been a player who has gotten into the heads of the Badgers in the past, and will be a player to keep an eye on during Friday's contest.
North Dakota defense and goaltenders
It's all but certain we'll see Zane Gothberg between the pipes for UND come game time on Friday night. The sophomore has elevated his game to No. 1 starter status, and his stats rank among the best to ever play the position at North Dakota.
Gothberg is 16-4-1 over his past 21 starts, and has allowed two goals or fewer in 17 of those games. According to game notes courtesy of UND media relations coordinator Jayson Hajdu, during that 21-game stretch, Gothberg owns a 1.76 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage.
UND is led defensively by Dillion Simpson. The senior captain was voted to the All-NCHC first team, and is as complete a defenseman as you'll see in this NCAA tournament. The Edmonton Oilers' draft pick is also a shot-blocking machine, ranking third in the NCAA this season with 98 blocked shots.
North Dakota also receives strong play from Jordan Schmaltz, a name that should sound familiar to Wisconsin fans. The Verona, Wis., native originally committed to play for the Badgers, but changed his mind after Mark Osiecki left to take the head coaching position at Ohio State.
Schamltz, who was drafted in the first round of the NHL draft by the St. Louis Blues, is very skilled and has the ability to provide offense from the back-end. Schmaltz had six goals and 23 points for UND this season and will certainly be a player the Badgers must account for this weekend.
By the numbers
||(24-10-2, 13-6-1 Big Ten)||(23-13-3, 15-9-0 NCHC)|
||19.0% (24th)||17.9% (28th)
||5'11.92, 190.15 pounds||6'0.12, 190.00 pounds
||22 years, 0 months
||21 years, 6 months|
Television coverage will be provided by ESPNU. The game will also be streamed on ESPN3, and the watch ESPN app.
Radio coverage this weekend will be provided by WIBA 1310 which can also be streamed online.
Wisconsin is relatively healthy. Obviously there are dings here and there, but the Badgers should have their full compliment of players this weekend.
North Dakota earned a 4-1 win over the Badgers in February of 2013. The two teams skated to a 1-1 draw the previous night in Grand Forks.
Wisconsin and North Dakota have met twice before in NCAA competition, with UND winning both games. UW fell to UND in the 1982 NCAA Championship Game, falling 5-2 in Providence, R.I., and dropped a 3-2 overtime game in the 2008 NCAA West Regional Final in Madison.
Nic Kerdiles - Mark Zengerle - Tyler Barnes
Morgan Zulinick - Jefferson Dahl - Michael Mersch
Grant Besse - Joseph LaBate - Sean Little
Brad Navin - Keegan Meuer - Jedd Soleway
Kevin Schulze - Frankie Simonelli
Jake McCabe - Joe Faust
Chase Drake - Eddie Wittchow