The last hurdle for the Badgers before winter break comes this weekend in Mankato, against the Minnesota State Mavericks (6-6-2, 3-6-1 WCHA). While this series appears, barring complacency, to be an easy four points, it is more critical than most realize.
It is true that Wisconsin has won seven of its last eight, but in spite of this run even the Badger coaches argue that consistency needs to improve. Nowhere was this more evident than last week at the Kohl Center, when the home team grabbed two victories despite fairly unimpressive performances.
Now the Badgers find themselves at a midseason lull. The games will not be against tough opponents, but it would be foolish to think the stakes are not high. With the pressure lower, the to-do list only gets longer as the team will be looking to round out the intangibles: consistency, confidence, cohesiveness, comfort and so on.
Alliteration does not explain all of the Badgers' tasks, though, as they will still need a strong performance on the ice to best the Mavericks. Though residing near the WCHA basement, Minnesota State will be fully capable of exploiting any underestimation or half-heartedness from Wisconsin, which must be careful not to look past this series in anticipation of the forthcoming break in game action. Furthermore, the game will be on the road, where Wisconsin only maintains a .500 record.
"They're a better team at home," UW head coach Mike Eaves said. "Their fans aren't like typical college, it's more like a junior hockey atmosphere. They get into it and charge up the team and we have to be ready for that."
The Mavericks numbers may not be impressive generally, but they are 6-1-1 in their last eight games. Now the Mankato squad has built up momentum in its quest to make up for early season struggles, when they fell prey to an offensive onslaught from the conference heavyweights.
"We have to go in there with the mindset that we have to play our best hockey," Badger forward Andrew Joudrey said. "We definitely aren't looking past them … Anybody can have a slow start or a bad record, but … we're respecting them and know what we're going up against."
As of late they have found some stability, especially in net. Head coach Troy Jutting has settled on Jon Volp between the pipes and the results have been promising, with the senior holding opponents to a little more than two goals per game. The Mavericks have also promoted sophomore Chris Clark to backup, plugging the hole in depth created by Kyle Nixon, who let up an atrocious 18 goals in three games.
Offensively the Mavericks are no pushovers. Led by the sophomore duo of David Backes and Travis Morin, who have amassed 15 goals and 13 assists between them, the Minnesota State offense could pose a problem for the Badgers should the visitors not have their heads completely in the game.
Of comfort for Wisconsin is that their opponents could beat themselves by adding to their conference leading tally of penalty minutes. The Badgers' power play unit is among the best in the nation and, given the opportunity, could exploit the man advantage and turn the game into a shootout that would all but doom the hosts' chances of an upset.
"They lead the league in shots on net and they're the most penalized team," Eaves said. "Everything is about hard. We have to be ready to handle that hard. That'll be the key to the whole weekend."
In the coming months the Badgers need to be more than just a team with elite goal scorers and a dominant goalie, and they cannot delay in working towards this. By the end of this weekend's series Mankato will either be their first stop on the road to becoming champions, or a distressing roadblock they will have to find a way past in time for the stretch run.
"Everybody feels good," Joudrey said. "We know that we have a big opportunity this weekend that we can't pass up."
What: No. 2 Wisconsin (12-4-0 overall, 9-3-0 WCHA) at Minnesota State (6-6-2, 3-6-1).
When: Friday, Dec. 10 at 7:37 p.m. and Saturday, Dec. 11 at 7:07 p.m.
Where: Midwest Wireless Civic Center in Mankato, Minn.
Broadcasts: No television. Live radio broadcast on WIBA-AM 1310.
Series Notes: The Badgers lead the all-time series 10-6-2 but are only 3-4-1 at Midwest Wireless Civic Center. Wisconsin went 3-0-1 against Minnesota State last season. This is the only series between the two schools this year.
—Eric Schmoldt contributed to this report