When: Friday, Oct. 29 and Saturday, Oct. 30, 7:07 p.m. Central
Site: Kohl Center, Madison, Wis.
Broadcasts: live on Fox Sports North, tape-delayed on Wisconsin Public Television at 10:30 p.m., live radio coverage on 1310 AM WIBA
Series notes: Wisconsin leads the all-time series 65-42-8. The Badgers went 1-0-1 against the Pioneers last season but had lost eight straight to Denver prior to 2003-04.
With midterms in full swing at the University of Wisconsin it is only appropriate that the Badger men's hockey team receives its first test of the year as well. This weekend the No. 5 Badgers host the defending NCAA Champion, No. 10 Denver.
Though coming off one of the most noteworthy seasons in school history, Denver barely resembles the team that only lost two of its last 15 games last season and claimed the school's sixth national championship, but first since 1969. This is mostly due to the loss of last year's eight seniors who, not surprisingly, have left a chasm in the Pioneer ranks.
Head coach George Gwozdecky was under no illusions as to how hard it would be to replace Connor James up front, Ryan Caldwell on the blue-line and Adam Berkhoel between the pipes. While some parts of this transition are going smoothly, others are causing great concern in the Rocky Mountains.
Look no further than goal, where sophomore Glenn Fisher and freshman Peter Mannino have taken the reins. Unlike last season, the Pioneers have not been able to rely on their goaltending to keep them in games. Fisher and Mannino have allowed 16 goals in five games.
Fortunately for the fledgling goaltenders, the defense in front of them has proved capable. Led by a trio of seniors in captain Matt Laatsch, assistant Nick Larson and Finnish import Jussi Halme, the Pioneer defense has depth and the ability to make people remember why this is the defending national champion. An added bonus for the unit has been the consistently strong play of sophomore Matt Carle, a member of the all-WCHA rookie team last year, who is third on the team in points with two goals and three assists.
"He's a quality young man and a quality defenseman," Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said about Carle. "When you watch him play now … he's got lots of confidence."
Defensive lapses can prove costly against a Badger offense that is leading the conference with just over five goals per game. Wisconsin has quickly established itself as a premier scoring team and is aiming to continue its impressive streak in what may prove to be a statement series. With four lines capable of scoring, Wisconsin's forwards could make it a very exhausting weekend for the Pioneers.
"Every unit that we put out there is going to have to be pretty good," Eaves said. "I think that is one of our strengths — our balance."
There to take the pressure off the blue-liners will be Denver's own potent unit of attackers. Though not yet as feared as last season's line, the Denver front is tied for third in the WCHA in scoring and just last week put up 11 goals against St. Cloud.
"They're so competitive, they play so hard," Badger captain Adam Burish said. "When there is a loose puck they jump on it. … They've got their core group back, so they're going to be just as competitive."
Leading the charge is third team All-WCHA junior Gabe Gauthier, the Pioneers' leading goal scorer from 2003-04. Gauthier tallied the lone goal in last year's championship game against Maine. He is aided by senior Jon Foster, who has burst on to the scoring charts with six goals, tying him for second in the nation.
"You always have them in the back of your head when you're playing defense: who's on the ice, who's fast, who's got creativity," UW defenseman Tom Gilbert said. "But you don't want to stress about being careful about just one guy, because they (Denver) have a bunch of forwards."
Wisconsin's main defense against these threats will come in the crease from both senior Bernd Bruckler and sophomore Brian Elliott. Though Bruckler has won the all the accolades and gained national recognition, Elliott has managed shutouts in both his starts this year, meaning opposing teams must respect Wisconsin's goaltending regardless of who takes to the ice.
And though the Wisconsin defense is young they have not been giving critics much to talk about. Through four games only five goals have been allowed, and three came while the Badgers were shorthanded. Denver, though, may prove just how able the new blue-liners are.
"They're very skilled and very fast," Gilbert said. "Denver has always got the same kind of characteristic forwards. They move the puck very well."
Traditionally, Denver has thrived at the Kohl Center, where they hold a record of 6-0-2 and currently ride a four-game winning streak. Much has changed in the two seasons since Denver last ventured into the confines of the Cardinal and White, however, and, against a surging Wisconsin team their run of success may be in danger.
Wisconsin has impressed thus far with their perfect record and strong showings. This weekend they get their first opportunity to show whether the hype is warranted.
"[Denver is] in the position where we want to be," Burish says. "They're national champs."