Badgers face rocky road test

Like Wisconsin, forwards power Denver to head of WCHA class

Once the buzzer sounded at the Allstate Arena in Chicago a few weeks ago and the Wisconsin Badgers added another sweep to their resume, all eyes turned towards the February stretch run. Though there would be four series, it was two teams that came to mind: Minnesota, the historic rival, and Colorado College, the strongest competition for the Western Collegiate Hockey Association title.

The better part of a month later, there is reason to believe they may have focused on the wrong Rocky Mountain team.

While Madisonians were busy monitoring the Tigers' successes and failures, No. 3 Denver (20-6-1, 15-4-1 WCHA) has been flying under the radar and quietly building its case as the top team in the nation's power conference.

Remember the Pioneers? The team that went 27-12-5 to win the national championship last spring? They are back, and recently leapfrogged the No. 4 Badgers (20-7-1, 15-5-0) in both the national and conference rankings, holding a one-point edge on UW in the race for the McNaughton Cup (though Colorado College is still in first, it has played two more games then both its in-state rival and Wisconsin).

Currently Denver is boasting as impressive a second half as any team in the land. The Pioneers have lost only once in their last 17 games and are currently riding a seven-game winning streak, tying the WCHA season best mark set by the Badgers. As it stands, the defending champions have a shot to win back-to-back titles for the third time in school history.

"In three or four, five weeks, who knows where they're going to be, but right now they're a very formidable team," UW head coach Mike Eaves said. "It's going to be a great weekend of hockey again. They're one of the best teams in the country. We're going into their backyard, we're going to have to play well."

The backbone of the Pioneers is their potent group of forwards, one of the most lethal units head coach George Gwozdecky has had in his 11 seasons on the job. This front line is currently top rated offense in the nation, averaging nine goals per weekend and claiming six players with 10 or more goals.

Like the Badgers, Denver can play three equally threatening lines at any time, giving them a rare edge that Wisconsin can understand all too well. Senior forwards Luke Fulghum and Jon Foster lead the team with 15 scores apiece, though senior Jeff Drummond and junior Gabe Gauthier are likely to draw as much attention from the Badger blue-liners.

"I think their balance is a strength of theirs, as it is ours," Eaves said. "Who do you cover? If you focus on one line another line is going to come through. So it should be a real good matchup in terms of those commodities. Both teams are balanced and we're going head to head with that aspect in mind"

Wisconsin's defense, though, is among the best in the nation and will be a much sterner test for Denver than it was when the teams split at the Kohl Center in October. Backing this unit up is senior goaltender Bernd Bruckler. With the ability to single-handedly keep the Badgers in any game, this all-American gives Wisconsin a valuable insurance policy, one that may be needed should the Denver forwards come out of the gate firing.

"When you take a look at any championship team, I don't care what sport it is, offense wins games but defense wins championships," Eaves said. "If that is one of our strengths going into post-regular season play, then that's something we would like on our side."

The Pioneers' defense is no pushover, either, however. Junior Brett Skinner and sophomore Matt Carle head the corps, one that has turned Denver into the second-best penalty kill unit in the WCHA, behind Wisconsin. In net, they rely on a rotation between freshman Peter Mannino and sophomore Glenn Fisher, a reliable duo, though hardly dominating.

"The biggest thing is just getting shots on these kids," junior captain Adam Burish said. "Whoever's playing, the bottom line is we've got to shoot the puck."

Though Denver has avoided being swept this season and is in ideal form, Wisconsin's chances on the road should not be underestimated. Against opponents currently ranked in the Top 15, the Pioneers have a record of 6-5, though only one of those losses has come at home, where Denver is an impressive 11-2.

Burish, however, shows little concern about playing away from home this weekend: "(Denver has) a smaller rink, as far as seating goes. It's not as loud, it's not as crazy of an atmosphere as we have here at the Kohl Center. Their student section isn't wild like ours. So it's a little more relaxed."

As it stands, each team will be wary of dropping vital points to one of their main competitors. Though both the Pioneers and Badgers will have six games left by the close of this weekend, expect each to play like it's their last.

What: No. 4 Wisconsin (20-7-1 overall, 15-5-0 WCHA) at No. 3 Denver (20-6-1, 15-4-1)
When: Friday, Feb. 11 at 8:37 p.m. Central and Saturday, Feb. 12 at 8:07 p.m.
Where: Magness Arena (6,026) in Denver.
Broadcasts: Fox Sports North will televise each game live and WIBA AM 1310 will provide a live radio broadcast in Madison. UWBadgers.com will also broadcast live audio.
Series notes: Wisconsin leads the all-time series 66-43-8 and holds a 33-20-3 edge in Denver... Wisconsin split with the Pioneers in Madison earlier this season, winning the first game 6-3 before losing 5-3... Denver head coach George Gwozdecky played for UW from 1973-77.


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