Despite a conference shakeup this season that saw many teams depart the WCHA for two new conferences — the Big Ten and National Collegiate Hockey Conference — that won’t stop two familiar foes from squaring off this season.
Wisconsin and North Dakota will meet this Friday in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Cincinnati.
After winning their two games at the Big Ten tournament in St. Paul, Minn., this past weekend, the Badgers (24-10-2) earned a No. 1 seed in the tournament, and in the process of winning the Big Ten Tournament Championship actually aided North Dakota in getting into the NCAA tournament.
“Getting matched up there with North Dakota just tells me that the gauntlet starts right now,” Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves said in a press conference Sunday. “There’s four games to get to the top of the mountain and the gauntlet starts right now. Every team is going to be tough and we are starting with a foe that we have a history with so it should be an awesome game.”
In the other newly formed conference this year, the NCHC, North Dakota (23-13-3) finished the regular season in second place. That second place finish though still did not guarantee UND a spot in the NCAA tournament and it found itself on the bubble heading into this past weekend’s NCHC tournament, which took place just down the road from the Big Ten Tournament at the Target Center in Minneapolis.
North Dakota fell in the semifinal game Friday night to Miami (OH), and was still very much on the edge of making the 16-team NCAA tournament field. But UND played its way into the tournament with a 5-0 win over Western Michigan Saturday in the third place game, and was aided by Wisconsin who beat tournament hopeful Ohio State and ended the Buckeyes’ season. Had Ohio State come away with the Big Ten’s automatic bid to the tournament, North Dakota very well might have been on the outside looking in.
After helping UND into the tournament, Wisconsin will now do battle with one of its biggest rivals second to only Minnesota. The two programs spent many years together in the old WCHA and are very familiar with one another, evidenced by the 165 games played all-time between Badgers and the team formerly known as the Fighting Sioux, but who no longer has a nickname for the time being.
“We’ve played them quite a bit,” Senior forward Jefferson Dahl said. “We know what they’re going to bring, they know what we’re going to bring. We’re just looking forward to the opportunity and I’m sure it will be a good one.”
In the two schools most recent meeting, a two-game series in Grand Forks which was the only meeting between the two teams last season, Wisconsin tied the first game but lost the second game. Wisconsin has struggled somewhat in the last 10 games against UND, as well, with a record of 3-5-2. The Badgers did sweep North Dakota two seasons ago, though, which accounted for two of the three wins in the last 10.
North Dakota is led in scoring by Rocco Grimaldi who has 36 points this season, including 14 goals. But the UND offense isn’t just limited to Grimaldi as seven other skaters have 20 or more points this season. Ten players have 10 or more assists for North Dakota as well. In net, Zane Gothberg has seen the majority of the minutes and has started 28 games this season for the Green and White. Gothberg has a goals-against-average of 2.05 this season and a save percentage of .923.
Wisconsin is also looking to rebound from its most recent NCAA tournament game against North Dakota, which was actually played at the Kohl Center back in 2008. Wisconsin lost the regional final game 3-2, with North Dakota earning the trip to the Frozen Four that season.
History, though, bodes well for Wisconsin as a No. 1 seed. The two more recent times Wisconsin was a No. 1 were 2006 and 2010 and both of those years the Badgers went on to the National Championship game, winning it all in 2006.
“Everyone is fighting for their lives at this point. It’s a life or death situation,” senior captain Frankie Simonelli said. “That’s one thing that we came across the season this year. We’ve done a good job of finishing teams off … we’ve had some good comebacks when we were down and I think that’s something we’ll build on.”