The Badger men’s hockey team (5-3-0, 3-3-0 WCHA), currently mired in a three-game losing streak, won’t get any breaks this weekend as it hosts the defending WCHA champions and No. 5-ranked Fighting Sioux of North Dakota (5-3-2, 3-1-0 WCHA).
After getting swept by archrival Minnesota last weekend, Wisconsin has no time to rest as it faces-off with another of its bitter rivals. According to head coach Mike Eaves, there is very little difference in the quality and intensity of the two rivalries.
“I think [the rivalry with North Dakota] is right up there,” Eaves said. “I mean, you take a look at history, I don’t remember the last time we had a bench-clearing brawl with Minnesota, but I think everybody remembers the last time we had it with North Dakota. So it brings something different to the table.”
The rivalry has been particularly tense the past couple of seasons as Wisconsin and North Dakota have split their last 10 meetings. The Badgers, however, got the better of the Sioux a season ago sweeping the only series between the two squads, by scores of 4-3 and 5-2.
Last weekend North Dakota split its weekend series with Colorado College, losing 3-2 Friday night before rebounding for the 2-1 victory Saturday. The win snapped the Sioux’s four game winless streak (0-3-1).
While North Dakota is expected to challenge for the WCHA title again this season, it has gotten off to an inconsistent start. Part of that inconsistency can be traced back to the team’s coaching change that took place in the off-season. Former head coach Dean Blais left to coach in the NHL, opening the door for one of his assistants, Dave Hakstol, to take over the program. As Eaves can attest to, any coaching change will cause a little turmoil.
“When you take over a program one of the things that you want to do is put your culture in place, or maybe Dave [Hakstol] has the same culture as Blazer (Dean Blais), I don’t know,” Eaves said. “Coming into a situation, there are always things that you have to deal with that you didn’t know existed, even though you were an assistant coach.”
One of the inconsistencies for the Fighting Sioux all year long has been their offense. Last season, North Dakota was one of the most explosive team’s in college hockey (4.4 goals per game), but this year they are averaging just 2.50 goals per game. While there are many reasons for the decline, the biggest is the loss of scoring machines Brandon Bochenski (27 goals, 33 assists, 60 points) and Zach Parise (23-32-55).
“[Not scoring as much as last year] is a byproduct of the people they lost. I really believe that,” Eaves said. “If you go back and watch those games last year with Zach in there and Bochenski, they scored goals that only they could score because they have that innate ability to make something happen out of nothing, a tip-in, something that hits them in the fanny and goes in the net, the puck finds them at the side of the net.”
While the offense has yet to come into its own, North Dakota’s Colby Genoway leads the WCHA with 11 assists. With 12 points, he is the team’s leading scorer. Travis Zajac leads the Sioux with six goals on the season. Perhaps the most dangerous player on the squad is Brady Murray (2-2-4), who has yet to find his scoring groove after ranking third on last year’s team with 19 goals, 27 assists and 46 points.
The Badgers, who are giving up just 2.5 goals per game, will look to extend the Sioux’s offensive misery through this weekend. One of the keys to doing that will be continuing to dominate on the penalty kill, where Wisconsin is second best in the WCHA (48-55, 87.3 percent).
Defensively, North Dakota has been strong all season long, giving up just 2.7 goals a game. While the offense struggles to find its rhythm, it has been the defense that has kept the Sioux in games all year long.
“I think that’s one of their strengths,” Eaves said of North Dakota’s defense. “They’re not that much different from last year. They’re big, strong, mobile, aggressive and that’s the earmark of their team.”
Wisconsin will need to play smarter hockey than they did against Minnesota if they want to crack the stingy North Dakota defense. While the Badgers are still the third ranked offensive team in the nation at 4.25 goals per game, they have been slow the past two weekends.