Entering its second of six-straight home series, the Wisconsin men’s hockey team looks to extend its two–game winning streak against a familiar foe.
The Badgers will take on former WCHA rival Colorado College (2-10-3, 2-5-3 NCHC) this weekend after earning their first pair of wins in the newly formed Big Ten ice hockey conference. While they are no longer foes fighting for valuable conference points, the players believe the nonconference matchup will not lose any of its usual intensity.
“We have a good rivalry with Colorado College and they are certainly a good team, so we are looking forward to having them come in here,” senior defenseman Joe Faust said. “Every single game means something.”
Last season, CC swept UW in the Kohl Center in the first series of November as the Badgers suffered a 5-4 overtime loss in game one and were shutout in a 3-0 CC victory in game two. This season the Tigers have struggled to record wins, earning just their second of the season last weekend against Nebraska-Lincoln. But Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves is not counting on an easy series for his team, saying CC is much better than their current record indicates.
“Quite honestly I’m surprised to see their record be what it is. We’re trying to do some homework to see what’s going on there,” Eaves said. “They had a pretty successful weekend last weekend and they got some momentum. They are coming in here to play us, a former rival. They are going to be all juiced up, so we need to be ready for them.”
For Wisconsin, the wins against PSU came at a much-needed juncture in the season, just a week after dropping two games to a then-ranked No. 1 Minnesota. The Badgers game came out Friday night with a decisive 7-1 victory in a game Eaves said was much less pretty than the score showed. Saturday was a different story as the Badgers and Nittany Lions battled back and forth before UW came out on top with a 4-3 win and a much better performance.
Sophomore forward Nic Kerdiles tallied four points on the weekend including the game-winning third period goal Saturday night. While the season has been one of personal accomplishment for Kerdiles, who is tied with senior forward Michael Mersch for most points at 14, the past weekend’s series served as a momentum boost for the entire team.
“Anytime you can get two wins under you belt, especially at home, it helps a lot,” senior forward and assistant captain Jefferson Dahl said. “Now that we are getting into games back-to-back weekends it is definitely a plus too.”
Beyond Kerdiles, several Badgers who have not regularly graced the score charts made significant contributions and will be looking to extend their success come Friday against the Tigers. Senior forward Sean Little recorded his sixth goal as a Badger Saturday along with a play-making assist off a hard hit. Freshman Badgers Grant Besse and Jedd Soleway each earned a point on the series, with a goal and assist respectively Friday, and are continuing to make strides in Eaves’ eyes.
Eaves specifically noted in his Monday press conference the play of Faust, who he believes is playing the best hockey of his career thus far. Faust is tied for second-most assists on the season with seven. After a goal Saturday, his current eight-point season ties his total points recorded in his first three seasons as a Badgers.
“I don’t really know exactly what it is, but I have great players and great coaches around me,” Faust said. “I feel like I have been playing well right now, and it’s fun. And getting those two wins last weekend for our team was huge for us.”
Looking ahead, special teams will be a critical area of focus for UW this weekend. The penalty kill unit has seen steady improvement, performing at 83 percent with 44 kills in 53 tries on the season. Meanwhile Wisconsin’s power play earned its first goal with the man-advantage against PSU after 17 straight with no score. A clear boost of confidence for the lead power play unit of Mersch, Kerdiles, seniors Mark Zengerle and Tyler Barnes and junior Jake McCabe, Eaves is glad to see their work paying off but was quick to say the group has not been without opportunities in the 17 prior lost advantages.
“The ultimate satisfaction is scoring goals, but then at the next level it is if we are creating scoring chances and it’s been there,” Eaves said. “It was just a matter of time …. it’s a tough power play because they don’t do anything structured. They have the ability to freelance.”
UW will take the ice for the third-straight weekend for the first time this season Friday night, and Eaves believes the series will be a great indicator of the consistency in the team after have three bye weeks already this season.
“I think this weekend will really, really have some kind of rhythm when on Friday night we are able to hit our stride earlier than we did this past weekend,” Eaves said.
The puck is set at 6:30 p.m. Friday night at the Kohl Center and and on Saturday at 7 p.m.