Fresh off winning their inaugural Big Ten tournament title, the Wisconsin men’s hockey team will travel to Cincinnati this weekend for the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Badgers (24-10-2 overall, 13-6-1 Big Ten) received a one seed in the Midwest Regional for the tournament and have earned the right to play fourth-seeded North Dakota (23-13-3 overall, 15-9-0 NCHC). The two teams used to play annually in WCHA conference play, but because of conference realignment this past year, the teams find themselves part of different conferences.
Nevertheless, Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves and his players are still fully aware of what the North Dakota program is all about and will look to use that to their advantage come Friday.
“We won’t have to go into the ring and jab around for each other for a while and figure each other out,” Eaves said. “We know styles. We’ve played each other within the last year. We’ll just jump into the deep end and start swimming.”
Eaves’ team won’t be swimming blindly because they are aware of the balanced attack this North Dakota team brings and that anybody that’s on the ice for them has the ability to score at any time.
“They have a lot of balance. They don’t have the real big numbers of years past, but they play with good balance,” he said. “Offensively, they have the highest points per game for defensemen, so their defense will provide a lot of offense for them.”
Unlike this year, last season in the first round of the tournament, Wisconsin found itself going up against a team it had never seen before at University of Massachusetts-Lowell. The lack of familiarity hurt the fourth-seeded Badgers as they fell to the No. 1 seeded River Hawks by a count of 6-1.
Senior defenseman and captain Frankie Simonelli has faced off against North Dakota numerous times in his four years at Wisconsin. He believes the high familiarity with the first round opponent is huge benefit for the team and will help prevent the Badgers from repeating what happened last year.
“I think it is big, especially looking back at last year. We came across UMass [Lowell], an opponent who we have never seen before and knew pretty much nothing about. This year is going to be much different,” Simonelli said. “We have that experience from last year as well as the familiarity with North Dakota. We know their tendencies, we know what they’ve been like in the past and we know what kind of game it is going to be.”
The balance presented throughout the North Dakota lineup will present a daunting task for Wisconsin. Eight North Dakota skaters have 20 or more points this season and 21 have scored a goal in a game this season.
That offensive depth combined with the physicality UND has displayed over the years should make for a difficult matchup for Wisconsin in reigniting the rivalry between the two schools.
“They generate their offense throughout their whole team. Their defensemen like to join in on their rushes and generate a lot of offense on their power play. It’s going to be a mucking and grinding type of game. We know it’s going to be a hard, toe-to-toe battle between the two of us,” Simonelli said.
On the surface, despite earning a number one seed, it appears that Wisconsin got a tough first round draw. This is especially evident when looking at the year North Dakota has had finishing second in the NCHC regular season and third in the conference tournament.
North Dakota has already experienced success in its first year in the NCHC but also has a long history of success, which includes seven national championships and a calling card as a tough opponent to go up against.
Although a disparity exists between the two teams’ seedings, the Badgers find themselves dead even defensively with North Dakota, as both teams are giving up an average of 2.5 goals per game this season.
Even though UW seemingly got a tough draw to start the tournament, senior forward Mark Zengerle, who scored the game-winning overtime goal in the Big Ten championship game, explained how the team is excited, rather than disappointed, about drawing North Dakota in the first round.
“I think most people probably see North Dakota and think we got the short end of the stick as far as the drawing goes and see North Dakota as such a rough and tough team. But we are excited about that. We wanted to play them when we heard there was opportunity, it will be a fun game,” Zengerle said. “We learned last year when we lost to UMass, a team we knew nothing about, that maybe it wasn’t so great playing a team we didn’t know. I think this year it fits things perfectly.”
This Wisconsin team started the season ranked No. 3 in the NCAA preseason rankings, so there is no reason to believe that this team can’t make it to Philadelphia for the Frozen Four or even win its first national championship since 2006. With that said, a Big Ten title isn’t enough for the Badgers, and this team is still hungry for more.
“There is only one team out of 59 that ends up winning, but when you have the experience we have with all the seniors, the amount of talent and the goaltending, and it doesn’t all come through in the end, then it is definitely a failure,” Zengerle said. “We knew we had a realistic chance going in to the season to win everything. Obviously, winning the Big Ten is nice, but it’s not the end goal.”
With the end goal being a national championship, the nine seniors on this team would want nothing more than to end their college hockey career on top.
“That would be the ultimate capstone,” Simonelli said. “We haven’t gotten much of a sniff at it before, but this is the last crack I’ll have at it with nine other seniors on this team. We have an attempt to win a national championship, so hopefully we can get there and achieve that goal.”
Wisconsin and North Dakota will face off in Cincinnati in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at 7 p.m. Friday.