It is hard not to notice that Minnesota and Colorado College (both ranked in the top five), as well as Denver and North Dakota (both in the top 15) all appear on the Badgers' February slate. It is a quintessential gauntlet to the playoffs and is likely to determine whether Wisconsin (17-6-1, 14-4-0 Western Collegiate Hockey Association) is capable of winning the conference, and even national, title.
But that is all in two weeks' time. For now, the Fighting Irish (5-14-5, 3-11-4 Central Collegiate Hockey Association) are the main concern.
"We know its going to be a big series and hopefully we can steal four points on the road and get a week off and rest before that last stretch of the regular season," forward Andrew Joudrey said.
Judging by the statistics, this series, played in South Bend on Friday and Chicago on Saturday, will be a cakewalk for the Badgers. The Irish have only three players with 10 or more points (Wisconsin has 10). They have not managed a single shutout (Badger netminders Bernd Bruckler and Brian Elliott have done this twice apiece) and have not surpassed three goals in a game, averaging less than two scores a night (UW has failed to reach three goals only five times). Finally the not-so-lucky Irish are riding a four game losing streak (Wisconsin has won four straight). Nonetheless, games are not played on paper and the Badgers have little room for overconfidence.
"Teams always want to come at high-ranked teams harder than normal," defenseman Tom Gilbert said. "If we take them lightly and our game isn't on they're going to beat us, and we just can't afford that."
Against non-conference opponents this year Wisconsin has not been at its best, claiming a record of 3-2-1, including crushing losses to Michigan State and Ferris State. Though Notre Dame may not concern the Badgers like the Tigers and Gophers do, overlooking them could be more damaging then it appears.
Wisconsin's mediocre non-conference record, as it stands, will hurt it in the rankings when it comes time to place teams in the NCAA Tournament. Without a strong weekend and two wins against Notre Dame, the Badgers could be dealt a low seed in the field of 16 or, according to one prognosis from USCHO.com, left out of the bracket entirely.
"[Notre Dame is] another non-conference series for us. Those are big at the end of the season, and we haven't done very good" Gilbert said. "If we can get two wins it'll look good for us … It's something we can't take lightly coming into this weekend and it's going to help us in the end."
Before the "Crease Creatures" in the student section panic, though, they can take solace in the fact that Wisconsin seems to be hitting its stride at the right time. The defense is ranked fourth in the nation while the offense, as of the last two weeks, is running on all cylinders and hitting the back of the net nearly five times a game. The Badgers also boast the best special teams combination in all of college hockey, something instrumental for success in the postseason.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the Badgers now is their depth. Opponents cannot figure out which of head coach Mike Eaves' three top lines they should prepare for the most. On any given shift Wisconsin has five first-class skaters, giving them a flexibility that few can match.
"Balance is a key element if you want to be successful," Eaves said. "We like the balance we have."
Then again, Boston College likely had similar things to say before its 3-2 loss to the Fighting Irish in October. Notre Dame may not have as much to play for as its counterparts in Madison, but has shown itself to be dangerous at times.
Notre Dame's attack is led by centers sophomore Josh Sciba and senior Cory McLean, who lead the team in goals and assists, respectively. Sophomore defender Wes O'Neill leads the team with 14 points and has been a force on the blue line, giving strong support to senior goalie Morgan Cey (2.59 goals against average). Though outclassed in talent by the UW roster, these players will be more than ready to pounce on any complacency shown by their opponents and pull off an upset.
"Last year we tied and lost (versus Notre Dame) primarily because of the way their goaltending played," Eaves said. "Their defensemen like to jump up in the play and if you're not ready for that it can burn you … When you work hard you give yourself a chance and they do that."
Wisconsin has a different kind of chance — the chance to build up six victories worth of momentum heading into its grueling playoff run next month. With the forecast calling for bad weather ahead, the Badgers need all the help they can to brave the storm.
What: Wisconsin (17-6-1 overall. 14-4-0 WCHA) at Notre Dame (5-13-5, 3-11-4 CCHA)
When: Friday, Jan. 21 and Saturday, Jan. 22, at 7:07 p.m.
Where: Friday—South Bend's Joyce Center (capacity 2,713); Saturday—Rosemont, Ill., Allstate Arena (18,500).
Broadcasts: 1310 WIBA AM and UWBadgers.com will provide live audio broadcasts.
Series Notes: Wisconsin leads the series 37-18-7 and is 14-9-5 at Notre Dame. These teams last met Jan. 17 and 18, with the teams tying 2-2 Jan. 17 and the Fighting Irish taking a 3-1 win Saturday night.