When the No. 16 Wisconsin men’s hockey team heads to Omaha, Neb. Friday for a two-game series with the No. 13 Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks, fans will be in for a battle between two teams that have found their success this season using very different styles of play.
Heading into the weekend, the Badgers (14-11-7, 10-7-7 WCHA) currently lead the WCHA in fewest goals allowed with 2.21 per game, while the Mavericks (18-12-2, 14-8-2 WCHA) hold the top spot in goals scored per game averaging nearly 3.5.
For sophomore defenseman Jake McCabe, this classic matchup between a prolific offense and a stingy defense could be the deciding factor between the WCHA foes.
“The system we run is really effective on a small sheet of ice, which is what UNO has,” McCabe said. “So I think that is what our focus is … taking away their time and space, giving them no outlets, and getting them to turn the puck over in the neutral zone.”
With senior center Derek Lee out indefinitely with a leg injury, which he sustained Monday in a 3-2 overtime loss to Penn State, the Badgers will be without their second-leading scorer, causing them to rely even further on their defense to keep them in the game.
But the Mavericks aren’t leading the conference in goals without reason.
Boasting the leading scorer in the WCHA, junior forward Ryan Walters — setting the curve with 35 points this season — and three players in the top-ten point-getters this season, UNO has a number of players that McCabe and company will need to be aware of when they are on the ice, as any one of them is capable of putting Wisconsin down a goal.
“I think we’ve just got to be more aware he is out there,” McCabe said. “He’s a guy that likes to shoot the puck everywhere, all over the ice.”
“So for us defensively, we just have to be aware when [Walters] has the puck. He can score goals and put up points otherwise.”
After a frustrating loss in their final game at the Kohl Center Monday against future Big Ten opponent Penn State, Wisconsin returned to the ice Wednesday for practice with an obvious renewed intensity.
Having climbed up to No. 17 in the PairWise rankings — a poll that indicates a team’s chances at making the NCAA Tournament — after Sunday’s 5-0 win, the Badgers plummeted back to No. 28 and could now potentially be set for their third-straight missed tournament.
Despite the disheartening loss, the coaches and players are not dwelling on it. In fact, they have moved on from it completely.
“We came to the rink today, and we didn’t even talk about that game,” McCabe said. “I expected maybe a little video of what we did, but that just kind of shows that we’re all moving forward.”
“The guys are focused,” assistant coach Gary Shuchuk added. “They know what they have to do. … They can’t look back.”
However, even with renewed focus, finishing out the regular season with four straight wins, which may be the only way that the team qualifies for the NCAA tournament, will be no easy feat — a fact which the players are quick to admit.
“I’m not going to beat around the bush, it’s going to be difficult,” junior forward Mark Zengerle said. “But we’ve beat some good teams before, it’s just going to be a matter of beating them back-to-back.”
Even if they can manage a pair of crucial victories over the Mavericks this weekend, one final WCHA series against conference-leader St. Cloud State at the Coliseum in Madison stands between the Badgers and a potential at-large bid and season-long goal.
“We’re just going to have to play our best games,” Zengerle said. “It’s a gut check for us and we will need to be on top of our game if we want to make the tournament, which is the goal.”