UW puts McNaughton hopes on the line

Badgers need three or four points from weekend showdown with first-place Colorado College

Nobody thought February would be an easy month for the No. 6 University of Wisconsin's men's hockey team. Four Top 15 ranked squads, three of the deepest offensive units in the nation and three hungry squads deep in the hunt for the Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular season championship — with this in mind, perfection was not expected.

But though a cakewalk was not predicted by anyone, there was a general feel that the Badgers (20-8-2, 15-6-1 WCHA) would be able to weather the storm and emerge in a strong position. Now, the team's recent form is calling this into question.

Having only claimed three of a possible eight points in their last two series, there is cause for concern in the Badger ranks ahead of this week's showdown with league leading No. 3 Colorado College (24-5-3, 17-5-2). For Wisconsin, this is a make-or-break weekend that could keep their McNaughton Cup campaign alive or destroy it completely.

"There are six games left and we're five points down on CC," freshman center Joe Pavelski said. "So to catch them, we're going to have to make a hard run at it."

Not having won in their last three contests, the Badgers will be under great pressure to not just split with the Tigers, but sweep them. Easier said then done.

Wisconsin has only been average against top competition, holding a record of 5-5-1 against teams currently in the Top 15. This was evident in last weekend's visit to Denver, where only a late-game rally saved the Badgers from two losses. Colorado College, on the other hand, has had no such problems, going 8-3 against such teams.

In addition, the under fire Wisconsin defense will have to cope with the nation's two top scorers in Madison this week. Junior forwards Marty Sertich and Brett Sterling have become the dominant duo of college hockey this year, registering 58 and 52 points, respectively, and no team has yet found an answer for them.

"[CC] have the two best forwards in the nation," UW freshman defender Kyle Klubertanz said. "We have a task ahead of us … and we're just going to have to shut them down the best we can."

The Tigers' biggest strength is also one of its biggest weaknesses, however. Aside from its two acclaimed snipers, Colorado College's offense is mediocre. Junior forward Joey Crabb is putting together a solid season, but is the only player aside from Sertich and Sterling who can claim more than seven goals.

As this top-heavy team has three players accounting for over half the team's scoring output, the Badger defense's assignment is obvious, though difficult — keep the Tiger stars in check.

"With CC you have Sterling and Sertich, who are probably as good as any two forwards in the country," Alaska-Anchorage head coach John Hill said. "I think Wisconsin will be able to neutralize them because they do a good job positionally, they take away the middle of the ice and they're physically strong."

On the other end of the rink, the line of Adam Burish, Robbie Earl and Pavelski will provide the spearhead of the Badger offensive effort. This trio has proved to be the Badgers' strongest and is gaining notoriety not only for its statistical production, but its playmaking ability and never-say-die attitude.

"They deserve a lot of credit for what took place certainly on Saturday," UW assistant coach Troy Ward said, referencing the line's two third-period scores against Denver. "They have been in a lot of ways the go-to line, I think, for us in offensive chances all year. They've probably produced the most consistently."

Standing in their way will be CC's goaltending rotation of senior Curtis McElhinney and sophomore Matt Zaba. Both are putting together strong seasons and giving their offensive juggernaut a solid backbone.

Currently the Tigers hold a five-point edge over Wisconsin in the WCHA title race, though the Badgers have played two fewer games. Knowing this, and knowing Denver is poised to leapfrog them should they lose even once, Colorado College is in as desperate a position as their counterparts from the Midwest.

If it is bad for CC, though, it is worse for Wisconsin. The Badgers' margin for error is narrow to the point where one loss this weekend may mean that they will have to wait until the WCHA Final Five for the chance at a trophy.

"If they (Colorado College) come out of here with three or four points, there is no way we're going to catch them," Klubertanz said.

Wisconsin has responded well this year when backed into a corner and is still confident, despite its recent skid, that it can win out in its last regular season home series of the year. Should the Badgers again fail to achieve a positive result against ranked competition, though, the conference title race will no longer be of their concern.

What: No. 6 Wisconsin (20-8-2 overall, 15-6-1 WCHA) v. No. 3 Colorado College (24-5-3, 17-5-2).
When: Friday, Feb. 18 and Saturday, Feb. 19 at 7:07 p.m.
Where: Kohl Center (15,237) in Madison.
Broadcasts: Fox Sports Net will televise the games live in Wisconsin. WIBA AM 1310 will provide a live radio broadcast in Madison. UWBadgers.com will provide live audio.
Series notes: Wisconsin leads the all-time series 100-49-7 and 55-23-3 in Madison… this weekend's series will be the only regular season meeting between the two schools… Colorado College head coach Scott Owens is a Madison native. Owens was a UW assistant during the 1990-91 season and he spent six years as the general manager of the USHL's Madison Capitols, the last four as head coach.

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