UW welcomes North Dakota to the Kohl

Badgers and Fighting Sioux are looking to get off recent skids

Everything was going on schedule for the University of Wisconsin men's hockey team en route to its goal of a national championship two weeks ago: goaltending was solid, offense was electrifying, the young defense was performing above average and, most importantly, the team was 5-0.

In the interim, however, the Badgers have stumbled to a three-game losing streak under the weight of powerhouses like Denver and Minnesota. Is a respite in their grueling schedule called for?

"Diamonds are made by pressure," assistant coach Troy Ward said. "We like the fact that we're going against another really good hockey team that is going to put a lot of pressure on us and pose some problems. In the end it'll make us a better team."

No quarter asked, none given for the Badgers as they prepare to take on No. 5 North Dakota Friday and Saturday at the Kohl Center and get their championship run back on track.

No. 6 Wisconsin (5-3-0 overall, 3-3-0 Western Collegiate Hockey Association) will not be the only team looking to get their season rolling again, though. The Sioux, who have been one of the better teams in the country in recent years, have only won one of their last five games after a 4-0-1 to start the season.

Though still a potent unit, North Dakota (5-3-2, 3-2-1) has suffered from a noticeable drop off in their offensive ranks — a common occurrence when a team loses two of the nation's top scorers. Leading the new guard are freshman Travis Zajac and senior Rory McMahon, whose combined 10 goals account for almost half of the team's total output on offense.

The forwards are rounded out by a deep rotation that includes senior Colby Genoway, who is tied for second in the nation in assists with 11, and sophomores Drew Stafford and Chris Porter. UW head coach Mike Eaves believes it is these players who pose the greatest danger.

"Genoway is really playing well," Eaves said. "Stafford was a first-round draft pick. He has special puck skills … and if he gets it going he can be very effective."

The Badger defense will look to regain their footing after allowing seven goals against a strong Minnesota attack last week. Though young and relatively inexperienced themselves, Wisconsin's blue-liners will not be intimidated by the Sioux offensive, which is a shadow of the unit that led the nation in scoring last season.

Far more troublesome for the Badgers than stopping their opponents from scoring will be finding a way to get the puck in the net themselves. In one of the stranger storylines out of Grand Forks, it is the Sioux defense that has taken the reins as the strength of the team.

"They create their offense off of their defense," Ward said. "If their defense is physically into the game and are a part of the rush … I think it gives their whole team another level of play."

North Dakota returns all eight of its starters from last year, giving the team a dangerous backline with which to give the offense some breathing space. Captain Matt Greene and veteran Matt Jones are the unit's headliners and will have to be on the top of their game against Wisconsin, which boasts the third best offense in college hockey.

Should the defense get into trouble, pressure will fall on the Sioux goalie. The only question is, which one?

North Dakota has put three different netminders in the crease so far and have not made much progress in settling on a No. 1. Last year's rotation, senior Jake Brandt and sophomore Jordan Parise, has now been bolstered with the addition of rookie Phillipe Lamoureux.

"It kind of keeps you on your toes," Badger captain Adam Burish said. "You don't know who they're going to use."

Though Parise has started six of the first 10 contests, he has suffered from mediocre play and let in 17 goals. Nor has Brandt looked like the answer in his limited time, paving the way for the possible ascendancy of the freshman. Though having only started three contests, Lamoureux has shown potential and claims a GAA of 1.62 and a save percentage of 94.

Whoever makes the start, though, Wisconsin is likely to keep them busy. The Badger offense, led by conference scoring standouts Robbie Earl and Joe Pavelski, has been dominant on both even strength and the power play, converting on a quarter of their chances.

Wisconsin is the more balanced of the two teams heading into this series, but the Fighting Sioux cannot be underestimated based on their depth alone. It will be a high pressure weekend; one the Badgers know has the potential to put them back on the championship track or, conversely, derail them.

And how do Wisconsin's skaters feel about it?

"I want to beat a good team, I want to beat one of the best teams in the country," Burish said. "That's when you feel your best. You want to beat a good team after the weekend we've had."

The puck drops Friday and Saturday night at the Kohl Center in Madison at 7:05.

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