When Minnesota State (10-9-5, 4-9-3) comes to Madison, No. 9 Wisconsin (15-8-3, 7-7-2) knows exactly what to expect.
“They have the little guys, those little gnats that won’t go away,” senior defenseman Craig Johnson said. “They always have those guys who will just do anything. Mankato has always been a team that hasn’t been as skilled as everyone in the league but they work hard.”
In other words, players on both sides don’t plan on seeing a lot of open ice. The Badgers are well-prepared for the physical, relentless style MSU plays and they know the Mavericks will do all they can to frustrate them.
“We are all aware of it. Playing them last year for the first time, I kind of figured that out,” sophomore defenseman Justin Schultz said. “We’ll be ready for it and we just need to make sure we don’t take any dumb penalties.”
But the Mavericks aren’t the only team around the country who likes to get chippy. In fact, junior forward Jordy Murray said the Badgers like to play with a similar mentality.
“They drive the net hard and they are going to be spraying our goalies, they are one of those teams that likes to get under your skin a little bit,” Murray said. “But we play well against those kind of teams and I think we are one of those teams. It’s going to be a good matchup.”
A good matchup indeed.
Both teams enter this WCHA series playing their best hockey of the year. The Badgers have won eight of their last nine, while the Mavericks are 8-3-1 in their last 12.
Minnesota State is coming off a hard-fought series with Denver, who sits one-point behind North Dakota for first place in the WCHA. The Mavericks took the Pioneers to overtime both nights, despite walking away with only a single point.
The Mavericks deploy a balanced offensive attack, which features seven players that have scored at least six goals. UW greatly outnumbers MSU in scoring, netting 90 goals on the year compared to the MSU’s 74, but nevertheless, they have found ways to win.
“They are playing very well. You have to be ready for a battle with them, and if you’re not, they are going to do exactly what they’ve done in these last 12 games,” UW head coach Mike Eaves said. “They push good teams to the brink because they work so hard.”
Eaves’ Badgers, on the other hand, are coming off their biggest win of the season. Wisconsin’s 3-2 win over Minnesota-Duluth last Saturday was just the second time UW beat a team with a winning record all season.
Onlookers have pointed to that victory over the Bulldogs as a statement win for the Badgers and the players are doing the same.
“Yeah, we were thinking about it before that game [against UMD], how we had never really gone against any top-ranked teams and beat them and that’s what we wanted to do,” Schultz said. “We played our best hockey there and it was a big win for us.”
The Badgers know this weekend is just as big.
The Mavericks may not have the flash and high ranking that Minnesota-Duluth possessed, but MSU provides another opportunity to earn wins over a team with a winning record.
“We are really happy we won that game. It could be a signature game,” Eaves said of the road victory over Duluth. “But now, we have to come back to work and it’s funny… Bret Bielema talks about going 1-0, well we have to go 2-0. But we’ll take it one game at a time.”
To come away with that coveted sweep in the midst of the WCHA conference race, Murray put it best:
“On paper we might have a more skilled team than them, but to win, we are going to need to outwork them.”