[media-credit name=’Derek Montgomery’ align=’alignnone’ width=’648′][/media-credit]The No. 2 Wisconsin men’s hockey team (12-4-0, 9-3-0) heads into the “land of ten thousand lakes” this weekend for its final tilt of the first half of the season when it takes on conference foe Minnesota State (6-6-2 overall, 3-6-1 in WCHA). The Ice Badgers are coming off a weekend sweep of preseason WCHA favorite Minnesota-Duluth and have won seven of their last eight contests. Minnesota State is also playing well of late, with a 6-1-1 record over the same stretch.
“Well, it’s all about getting points on the road,” UW head coach Mike Eaves said. “We would really like to end this first half of the year at break on a good note. That’s been our focus here — it will be our focus all week, (we want to) try to close out here on a real positive note. We have to get some points in order to be where we want to be.” Wisconsin is 2-2-0 away from the Kohl Center this season and will be looking to improve upon an overall 3-4-1 record in Mankato. Last season, with Eaves in Finland guiding the U.S. junior team to a gold medal, associate head coach Troy Ward directed the Badgers to a 3-3 tie and a 6-2 win in the Midwest Wireless Civic Center. “They have alcohol in the building there, so that’s a little different flavor, pardon the pun,” Eaves said. “But the ice surface is the same as ours. I mean, it’s good ice. I don’t mind the building. Last year, Troy took the team in there and did a pretty nice job. So I don’t think it’s any different than any other building.”
Despite posting a mediocre conference record, the Mavericks have played solidly against some of the WCHA’s finest. In its opening weekend, Minnesota State gave North Dakota all it could handle in Mankato, tying the Sioux 2-2 in the series opener before falling 2-1 in the final tilt. Two weekends later in Minneapolis, after being blown out by a score of 9-2, the Mavericks pushed Minnesota to overtime, but lost 3-2.
“They pose a lot of challenges for us,” Eaves said. “This team went into Minnesota, and we watched that game, and they were outstanding … so they can skate. They’re competitive. And as we seem to say about every team, if you work hard and you play hard, you give yourself a chance to win, and they will definitely do that.”
The sophomore forward duo of David Backes and Travis Morin lead the way offensively for the Mavericks, with 15 and 13 points, respectively. Senior goaltender Jon Volp has rebounded after a poor 2003-04 campaign to post a 2.49 goals against average and a .917 save percentage, and sophomore backup Chris Clark has played well in limited opportunities.
However, poor special teams play has lassoed the Mavericks this season — they rank last in the conference on the power play and second to last in penalty kill. Despite this, the Badgers are well aware of the dangers of going on the road in the WCHA and will have to avoid overlooking the Mavericks.
“Any team at home can always play well,” sophomore center Andrew Joudrey said. “They’re going to have the home crowd with them, so we need to take it like any other series — like take it like we did against Michigan. We definitely cannot look by them, because if we do we’re going to get caught with our pants down.”
After Saturday’s game, Wisconsin will have a 20-day break from competition and the team doesn’t want to end the first half of the season with a sour taste in its mouth.
“[This series is] huge, everything we get from the four points that we get from winning both games just to the morale around the team,” Joudrey said. “You have two weeks off with no hockey; you don’t want to be sitting on a loss, so it’s huge for us to come in there and have a good showing, hopefully take four points.”