It has been a tale of two Duluths with the No. 14 Bulldogs (7-5-2, 5-3-0 WCHA), who have gone from top dogs to barely ranked in the space of a few weeks. After starting the year 5-0-1 Minnesota-Duluth was recognized as the No. 1 team in the nation, giving supporters hope that they could surpass their third place finish in last year's Frozen Four.
Just as they were beginning to look like a legitimate title contender, though, things came crashing down and the Bulldogs lost five of their next eight games. Now they find themselves at a critical juncture, badly needing a successful weekend to avoid falling out of title contention.
"They went through a huge peak and met everyone's expectations out of the gate, then they didn't meet their own expectations or probably anyone else's," UW assistant coach Troy Ward said.
Finding a way to gain a pair of wins in the Kohl Center against a team coming off of a win versus previous No. 1 Michigan, however, may be the biggest challenge 2003-04 National Coach of the Year Scott Sandelin has this season.
"We're still taking it the same as if they're top in the WCHA, because we know they're good, they're a veteran team and they've been through this before," Badger defenseman Kyle Klubertanz said.
The Bulldogs' chances are contingent on who shows up. Will the offense that managed an intimidating 31 goals in their first seven games hit the ice, or the one that has only come up with 16 in the seven games since? As the offensive skid matches that of the team as a whole, the play of the forwards is proving to be Minnesota-Duluth's X factor.
Part of the reason the Bulldog offense may be in decline is because they rely too much on star senior Evan Schwabe and junior Marco Peluso, who account for a third of the team's total scoring output. If proper balance is not established, the Badger defense will have a far easier time suffocating the UMD attack.
"Obviously they're looking to their guys who are doing well and started off hot," Ward said. "But they have depth at scoring and we'll need to be ready every shift."
If the offense does manage to right its wrongs this weekend and score, it will be hard earned. Wisconsin goaltending stalwart Bernd Bruckler is once again expected to be in between the pipes and the defense in front of him has been garnering praise for its speedy maturation. The inexperienced blue-liners have made a habit of closing off scoring lanes, blocking shots and stifling opponents while on the penalty kill.
Though this provides a daunting challenge for the Duluth scorers, their teammates on the defensive side will be kept equally busy. The Wisconsin offense is as capable as any in college hockey and has three equally dangerous scoring lines at its disposal. If Wisconsin turns the series into a shoot out, the Bulldogs will be hard pressed to manage a draw.
UMD also has to be concerned about the inconsistent play of goalie Isaac Reichmuth. Though the junior put together a strong campaign last year that saw him make 2nd Team all-WCHA, he has let up twice as many goals as backup Josh Johnson in almost the same amount of games.
"(Reichmuth) has the ability to win in this league and he's proven that," Ward said. "I'm sure that he's probably ready to go."
Though the Bulldogs are struggling, Wisconsin is by no means in the clear itself. This weekend offers a good opportunity for the Badgers to put together two strong games and further its quest to become the nation's elite team. But in order to do so they cannot forget that UMD has been in that position before, and wants to get back.
"They're going to come in and play with urgency, because they know they have to win," Klubertanz said. "They're dangerous."
What: No. 4 Wisconsin (10-4-0 overall, 7-3-0 WCHA) v. No. 14 Minnesota-Duluth (7-5-2, 5-3-0)
When: Friday, Dec. 3 and Saturday, Dec. 4 at 7:07 p.m.
Where: Kohl Center (15,237) in Madison
Broadcasts: Fox Sports Net live television; WIBA-AM 1310 live radio; tape-delayed broadcast on Wisconsin Public Television
Series notes: Wisconsin holds a 78-52-9 lead in the all-time series