Coming off a gigantic 3-2 upset over No. 2 Minnesota in the Hockey City Classic, the Wisconsin men’s hockey team is looking to carry it’s momentum through the remaining three weeks of the season.
Sitting at sixth in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association — and only four points behind first place St. Cloud State — Wisconsin (13-10-7, 10-7-7 WCHA) will take a break from conference action this weekend to host future Big Ten rival Penn State (12-13-0).
“I’d rather be playing period,” head coach Mike Eaves said. “We had such a great emotional energizer last weekend, it was an uplifting win. We just want to keep playing. Whether its nonconference, the fact that we have games — we need to get Ws. That’s our focus this weekend.”
While the weekend will be a good preview for what’s to come next season in the Big Ten hockey’s inaugural year, taking a weekend off from conference play isn’t ideal.
Despite whoever is across the ice from them, the fact remains that the Badgers need to win. Currently ranked No. 18 nationally and tied for 25 in the Pairwise rankings, Wisconsin is sitting just outside of the NCAA playoff picture.
“If we had two more conference games I think we’d have a better shot to get more points and get up there,” senior forward Ryan Little said. “But at the same time it’s nice to play somebody different, somebody new. I think it’ll be good for next year, to get the fans a taste of what the Big Ten’s going to start out like.
“It could really hurt us if we don’t get out there and take care of it, in the Pairwise and stuff like that. You want to win no matter what, to ride that streak into the last two weekends.”
Penn State — who is playing as an independent this season — will visit the Kohl Center while riding a seven-game win streak (including four exhibition games) into a rare Sunday-Monday series. The weekend is the first matchup between the Nittany Lions and the Badgers.
While Penn State will close out it’s season this weekend against Wisconsin, it has already faced two other Big Ten teams this season. In a one-game outing with Ohio State, Penn State bested the Buckeye’s 5-4. A few weeks later, PSU matched up with MSU for a two game series, which it split with a 5-3 loss in game one and a 3-2 victory in game two — which jump started its seven-game win streak.
Heading into Sunday, PSU is currently averaging 2.8 goals per game to UW’s 2.3. Penn State’s offensive effort is led by freshmen forwards David Glen and Casey Bailey who each have 25 points on the season. Glen boasts 16 goals and nine assists, while Bailey has 13 goals and 12 assists. Sophomore forward Max Gardiner — younger brother of former Badger defenseman Jake Gardiner — also has 20 points on the season on three goals and 17 assists.
Though Penn State has six players on the roster with double digit points, Wisconsin has seven players with points in double digits but only two with over 20 points — junior forward Michael Mersch with 24 on 16 goals and eight assists and senior forward Derek Lee with 21 on three goals and 18 assists.
Lee will be one of three senior’s honored on Sunday, along with Little and defenseman John Ramage. But while emotions have the potential to be running high, Little isn’t too concerned he’ll get caught up in the hype with three weeks left in the regular season.
“I don’t think it’ll be too emotional,” Little said. “Maybe my mom will get a little emotional. For me it will be the actual end of the season where it really sets in that that’s it.”