When the No. 19 Wisconsin men’s hockey team heads to Grand Forks, N.D., Friday for a two-game series against No. 7 North Dakota, it will be facing an opponent that couldn’t be in more different form over the last month and a half.
While the Badgers have been on a tear of sorts – winning five of their last six games – North Dakota has fared just the opposite over their last six and enter the weekend matchup with just a single win against Colorado College during that span.
To add insult to injury, North Dakota has allowed a whopping 21 goals in their last six appearances, and three of those games have seen them allow at least four goals.
Head coach Mike Eaves will have already drilled his team that no game is a guaranteed victory, especially in the ultra-competitive WCHA conference, but junior winger Michael Mersch admitted he thinks momentum could play a helping hand in their quest for their 10th and 11th victories in a 12-game stretch.
“We’ve been coming around towards the end,” Mersch said. “So hopefully they have been looking at this, looking at our little streak here, and – I don’t want to say intimidated – but they realize that they’ve got a great team coming in this weekend.”
Still, despite the very different outlooks each team has entering the series, both teams remain deadlocked with 8-5-5 records for fourth place in the WCHA – just four points out of first, currently occupied by No. 1 Minnesota.
In the grand scheme of the season, however, Wisconsin stands to gain just four points in two games with North Dakota this weekend. But in a conference where only five points separate the top seven teams, Mersch knows a victory against any one of those teams takes on added importance.
“Every game means a lot,” Mersch said. “Going in there and hopefully stealing a few points will help us out and give us a boost in the WCHA standings.”
If last year is any indication, that may be easier said than done.
In the 2011-12 season, the University of Wisconsin and the University of North Dakota played four games, with each team winning twice.
While the Badgers stole the show at the Kohl Center in October, winning twice and scoring five goals each night, Ralph Engelstad Arena provided another story when the two teams met again in January. Giving up nine goals during two games, UW fell to UND in back-to-back nights.
Junior defenseman Frankie Simonelli, who played in both losses to North Dakota a year ago, was the first to admit playing and winning in 11,000-seat Engelstad Arena will be no easy task.
“It’s definitely a tough place to play, one of the best in college hockey,” Simonelli said. “Last year we had two good games there, they were well-fought battles. We didn’t wind up on top, not the outcome we wanted.”
“I think going into this year, we can take the experience – guys who were there last year – and have played there before and use that to help us as well.”
In addition to a raucous crowd while playing at Engelstad Arena, UW will also face a smaller NHL-sized rink, as opposed to the Olympic-sized Kohl Center that has been its venue for the last four games.
As a result, the team has taken special care in practice to focus on the differences – in particular, parts of their game the Badgers will be able to capitalize on – when they play on a smaller rink this weekend.
“Shooting the puck is going to be an emphasis for our team,” Mersch said. “We’ve been doing a lot of it in practices this week to shoot from different angles of the ice and make sure we put them on net and test their goalie out.”
While the offense will look to pick up where it left off against Alaska-Anchorage, where it scored seven goals over the series and never fell behind, it will have to do so without senior center and assistant captain Derek Lee.
Lee, who suffered a concussion against Alaska-Anchorage Saturday, has not practiced this week and has continued to experience residual effects from his injury.
Still, even without Lee, Eaves said he doesn’t expect any letdown as far as UW’s performance this weekend in an important midseason matchup.
“It’s easy to coach these weekends because kids will be all elevated in their emotions,” Eaves said at his Monday press conference. “We just have to fine-tune that, probably pull the reins in a little bit [and] get a good game plan together.”