The University of Wisconsin women’s hockey team welcomes Western Collegiate Hockey Association foe, the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks, for an intense, and important, weekend series.

The Badgers (20-2-1-0, 15-2-1-0 WCHA), who opened 2017 with two blowout games against St. Cloud State University last weekend, are looking to gain more momentum and retain their first-place standing in the conference by defeating the Hawks (12-7-5, 9-5-4 WCHA).

Wisconsin returned from winter break as not only the top team in the WCHA, but also as the top team in the country per the USCHO.com rankings. With only three losses separating UW from a second place tie in the WCHA table, a loss this weekend could eliminate the Badgers’ hard-earned three-game security blanket.

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The last time these two teams saw each other, UW managed to sweep North Dakota on the road in Grand Forks, a first for the team since 2011. Historically, this matchup tends to favor the Badgers, with a 18-2 regular season tally in favor of Wisconsin.

Wisconsin has also been on a hot scoring streak, with junior forwards Annie Pankowski and Emily Clark earning individual hat tricks last weekend. Wisconsin wound up outscoring St. Cloud 11-0, and Clark would earn the WCHA Offensive Player of the Week honor for her stunning performance.

The return of a healthy and rested Ann-Renée Desbiens, who suffered a concussion in November, has also been beneficial for the team. Aside from adding yet another pair of shutouts to her already decorated NCAA record, Desbiens has been posting impressive numbers in front of the net across the board too.

Currently, Desbiens is allowing 0.67 points per game – a 0.961 save percentage – and has only surrendered five power-play goals on 82 power-play opportunities this season. With the season finally settling down and penalty rules becoming more familiar to the teams, Desbiens should be relieved of the threat of special team play.

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This game, along with every remaining WCHA matchup, is key for Wisconsin as the Badgers begin to shift their focus toward the WCHA playoffs at the end of February. Competition in the WCHA is close, with only three losses separating the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and University of Minnesota-Duluth from the No. 1 spot.

With another series against both Minnesota-Duluth and Twin Cities awaiting them in February, the more wins the Badgers can get under their belt, the better chances they have of securing a spot in the WCHA Final face-off. The challenge presented by North Dakota will be a good indicator of how Wisconsin will fare during the remainder of the season.

The first puck drops in LaBahn Arena this weekend at 2 p.m. Saturday. Sunday’s match has been rescheduled for noon, and coverage of both games will be available on BTN Plus.