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Wisconsin hockey series preview: Michigan

While the Wolverines feature the No. 1 scoring offense in the nation, they rank 46th in team defense. We could be in line for a couple high-scoring affairs this weekend at the Kohl Center.

Dylan Larkin has been a standout for Michigan in his freshman season.
Dylan Larkin has been a standout for Michigan in his freshman season.
Richard T Gagnon - Getty Images

It was another roller coaster weekend for the Wisconsin men's hockey team as the Badgers were able to take two out of six points on the road last week at Minnesota despite being dominated for much of the weekend.

Thanks in large part to goaltender Joel Rumpel, Wisconsin was able to pull off a miraculous tie and shootout win on Friday night despite being out-shot 49-20 in the game. The Gophers came out even stronger on Saturday, taking the series finale, 5-2.

This is now the third straight week the Badgers were been able to take points in one of the games from a highly-rated team on one night, but faltered in the other game of the series. UW head coach Mike Eaves reiterated this week that his club must find a way to play better in both games of the weekend.

"No matter what our record is, this growth process that we're going through, we're always talking about playing championship hockey," Eaves said. "How do we get there? A championship team has the ability to be consistent. In our world, you have to be able to play and win back-to-back games to play at that championship level to give yourself a chance. We're talking about that, we're pushing our kids to that. Obviously we're not there yet. There are indicators that we're moving in that right direction. We have to keep pushing.

"As disappointed as we were Saturday, we have to come back, look at video, be honest with ourselves and move forward."

I feel like I say this every week, but things don't get any easier for the Badgers this week as they host Michigan at the Kohl Center for a two-game Big Ten conference series. The Wolvarines are the top scoring team in the country this season, and will provide a big challenge for Wisconsin, who will be without defenseman Eddie Wittchow due to a suspension.

"Down the middle they are really talented, and that's where you want to be strong," Eaves said. "And they've got some defensemen that can move. So, they've got some pieces there, they'll be formidable.

"We want to be 1-0 on Friday and 1-0 on Saturday, but we're going to get better because of the level of play -- it's going to draw the best out of our kids."

Wisconsin offense

The Badgers didn't create a lot of offense on the weekend, but when they did, it was usually No. 12 Grant Besse in there making a play. The sophomore from Plymouth, Minnesota was Wisconsin's top offensive threat throughout the weekend, notching three goals in the series and adding the game winner in the shootout on Friday.

"He’s a gifted player, he played strong," Eaves said. "He was one of our better players."

Besse's line, that also features freshman Adam Rockwood and senior Joseph LaBate, saw a bit of a tweak last weekend with LaBate moving to center. Rockwood had been playing in the middle over the past few weeks, but LaBate gives that unit a big more presence defensively.

UW's "Western Canada" line that features Cameron Hughes, Jedd Soleway and Morgan Zulinick was also able to score in Friday's game on a beautiful passing play that saw all three players touch the puck. If the Badgers are able to keep pace with the Wolverines this weekend, they'll need production from this group again.

Looking a bit further down the lineup, Brad Navin, Matt Ustaski and Ryan Wagner created a few scoring chances of their own on the weekend. Despite not finding the back of the net, this unit was an inch or two away from making a big difference last weekend.

Wisconsin defense and goaltenders

The major storyline for the Badgers this week is the absence of defenseman Eddie Wittchow, who is out due to a suspension handed down by the Big Ten. Late in Saturday's game Wittchow leveled Minnesota forward Leon Bristedt and was given a major penalty and game disqualification for head contact. That penalty carries an automatic one game suspension. The Big Ten announced earlier this week that they had tacked on an extra game, forcing Wittchow out for the entire series this weekend.

"It hurts us," Eaves said. "We don't agree with the decision on many levels, and that's something we'll take up with (Big Ten head of officiating) Steve Piotrowski. It does hurt us, so like every coach says, next man up. Cullen Hurley, who has been getting better every week in practice as a young college defenseman gets an opportunity to play.

"We're going to have to play really intelligent, collectively as units of five and defense pairings, and we'll need Joel (Rumpel) to play well again. That's the great thing about competing, you have to play. We'll see who steps up this weekend."

Michigan scouting report

As coach Eaves said in the introduction, the Wolverines are littered with talent at the center position, which makes them one of the deeper offensive teams in the nation. Andrew Copp, Dylan Larkin and JT Compher provide depth up the middle that can't be matched at the college level.

Michigan's leading scorer this season is senior Zach Hyman, which may surprise some people as he's been a player that has been in the shadows a bit over his previous three years. Not anymore. Hyman is playing right wing on a line centered by the freshman Larkin and leads the team in goals (13) and points (29) through 20 games so far this season.

With three quality centers, the Wolverines are able to spread their talent throughout the offensive lineup. Wingers Tyler Motte, Alex Kile and Boo Nieves are very dangerous players that can provide offense at any time.

Defensively, Michigan is very young, but skilled. The unit is very mobile and has some puck movers that can ignite the offense. The two players to keep and eye on this weekend are sophomore Michael Downing and freshman Zach Werenski. Downing is a Florida Panthers draft pick and Werenski is projected to be a top-10 pick in the upcoming NHL Draft.

In goal Michigan is a bit unsettled, as Steve Racine and Zach Nagelvoort have both seen action between the pipes this season. Racine has started the previous three games for the Wolverines, but has given up a total of 12 goals in the process, including six last weekend in a game against Ohio State. I'd be surprised if Nagelvoort, who has played in 15 games this season with a .904 save percentage, doesn't get the start Friday night.

By the numbers

WISCONSIN MICHIGAN
RECORD
2-13-3 (0-3-1-0 Big Ten)
13-7-0, (5-1-0-0 Big Ten)
SCORING OFFENSE
1.78/gm
4.15/gm
SCORING DEFENSE
3.61/gm
3.10/gm
POWER PLAY
10.60% 24.3%
PENALTY KILL
75.40%
80.6%
PAIRWISE RANKING
No. 54
No. 15
RPI
No. 54
No. 15
KRACH
No. 50
No. 12
AVG. HEIGHT/WEIGHT
5'11.89, 187.59 pounds 6'0.52, 196.04 pounds
AVG. AGE
21 years, 2 months
20 years, 10 months

Coverage

Friday's game will be televised on BTN (8:00 p.m CT start), while Saturday's game will be on the Wisconsin Channel (7:00 p.m. CT start).

Both games will stream for free on BTN2Go.com.

As always, Brian Posick will call the games on the radio this weekend. You can find his call on WIBA 1310 and also on the Badger Radio Network.

Polls

Wisconsin is not ranked.

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

Injuries

Wisconsin: None.

Michigan: 4th-line center Travis Lynch is out with a broken hand.

Last meeting

Michigan took five of six conference points last season in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines won the opening game of the series on Friday night, and then took another two points on Saturday as they tied the Badgers but won the shootout.

Fun fact

Senior goaltender Joel Rumpel played in his 100th career game at Wisconsin last Saturday, becoming just the sixth goaltender in school history to reach the mark. Graham Melanson (140), Duane Derksen (129), Kirk Daubenspeck (121), Bernd Brückler (114) and Dean Anderson (110) are the others.

Projected lineup

Adam Rockwood - Joseph LaBate - Grant Besse
Morgan Zulinick - Cameron Hughes - Jedd Soleway
Matt Ustaski - Ryan Wagner - Brad Navin
Aidan Cavallini - Matt Paape - Corbin McGuire

Kevin Schulze - Jack Dougherty
Tim Davison - Jake Linhart
Cullen Hurley - Chase Drake

Joel Rumpel - Landon Peterson

Badger Hockey Digest