What: No. 5 Minnesota-Duluth (18-7-1 WCHA, 22-10-3overall) at No. 4 Wisconsin (14-6-6, 20-9-7)
When: Friday, March 5 and Saturday, March 6, 7:05 p.m. CST
Site: Kohl Center, Madison, Wis.
Broadcasts: Live television coverage on Fox Sports North, tape-delayed at 10:30 p.m. on Wisconsin Public television, live radio coverage on 1310 WIBA (AM)
Series notes: Wisconsin leads 78-51-8 overall, 45-19-3 at Madison, first time these teams have met this season
The final weekend of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association season is here, and with it comes the possibility of each and every team finding itself at a different place in the standings when it is all said and done. The WCHA has been considered one of the toughest leagues in all of college hockey and the fact that everything has come down to the final weekend only proves its parity.
"There are so many good teams in this league. It was obvious that it was going to come down to the end," senior center John Eichelberger said.
One of the more intriguing matchups will take place right here in Madison, at the Kohl Center this weekend. No. 4 Wisconsin (14-6-6 WCHA, 20-9-7 overall) plays host to No. 5 Minnesota-Duluth with much riding on the line.
"We want to play well against a good team because chances are we might see this team again," head coach Mike Eaves said.
The Badgers clinched at least third place in the WCHA with their sweep of Alaska-Anchorage last weekend, but with another sweep this weekend they would take over the second spot.
The Bulldogs come into the weekend in that second spot. With a couple wins and some considerable help from league cellar-dweller Michigan Tech, they still have a chance to take the WCHA Championship and win the MacNaughton Cup.
Only one thing is for certain; the action at the Kohl Center this weekend will make it seem as if the playoffs have already begun.
"They've had a great year and we haven't seen them play so it should be a good series," Eichelberger said.
Eaves knows all about playoff-style hockey. He helped carry the Badgers to an NCAA title in 1977. After getting back from the long trek to Alaska he knew that the team would be sluggish, but perhaps did not think it would linger through to Wednesday afternoon's practice. Eaves cut the practice short by 45 minutes because he did not like what he saw.
"We were just off," Eaves said. "Everybody was tired. It was about cutting our losses short."
But the team came back Thursday and is confident going into the big series this weekend.
"Everybody was on the ice [early] today on their own," Eaves said. "We always want to practice well. With the advent of the trip it was an off week, but the response [on Thursday] was what we needed to see."
The games should make for an interesting battle. The series matches up the top offensive team in the WCHA, Duluth, which is averaging 4.35 goals per game in league contests, against the best defense in the league, as Wisconsin is giving up just 2.15 goals per game.
Duluth's offense is led by senior forward Junior Lessard, junior forward Evan Schwabe and sophomore forward Marco Peluso, who are all among the top 15 goal-scorers in the league in conference-only statistics. Only freshman forward Robbie Earl can boast that feat for Wisconsin.
Defensively, the Badgers have been carried all year by the play of junior goalie Bernd Bruckler. The Austrian leads all goaltenders in league play in goals against average, save percentage and minutes played, and is revered by many as the league's most valuable player. At the other end of the ice will be sophomore netminder Isaac Reichmuth who has played quite well himself.
The Badger seniors will be honored on Saturday night, prior to playing in their last regular season home game and just before they take the ice with hopes of stealing second place from Minnesota-Duluth. The game could mark the finishing touches on a season in which the UW has staged a remarkable turnaround.
"It's just unbelievable. You feel bad for the guys last year who went out on a bad note, but I couldn't ask for anything more. It's just been a dream," senior defenseman Andy Wozniewski said.