The Badgers (21-9-2 overall, 16-7-1 Western Collegiate Hockey Association) head to rowdy Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D., this weekend for a series with the fading North Dakota Fighting Sioux, whom they swept at the Kohl Center earlier this season. It is the first time in a month that Wisconsin faces an unranked squad.
Much of anticipation for this matchup has diminished in recent weeks. The Badgers' recent 2-3-1 skid means that they have to win out to even have a chance at the McNaughton Cup. With Colorado College and Denver unlikely to derail, however, the odds are not in their favor
"We still think that, mathematically, we have a chance to move up in the ratings, but we're going to have to do our part and other teams are going to have to do their part," UW head coach Mike Eaves said. "So we haven't given up on that at all. But the main thing is to get points every weekend, then things will lay out as they go."
The rivalry is further tempered by the fact that the Sioux (16-13-3, 11-12-1) are at their lowest point in recent memory. North Dakota has lost seven of its last nine and has fallen out of the national rankings this week for the first time in three years. After winning the WCHA last season with a 30-8-3 mark, North Dakota was gutted by the departures of star forwards Zach Parise and Brandon Bochenski, not to mention legendary UND head coach Dean Blais.
Rookie coach Dave Hakstol is finding it much harder to win the league this year, with a lack of scoring ability and senior leadership providing him the most frustration.
What lackluster results the Sioux have produced on offense have mostly come from freshmen forwards Travis Zajac and reigning WCHA co-rookie of the week Ratislav Spirko. Backing these stars up are sophomores Drew Stafford and Brady Murray, both threats that cannot be taken lightly.
"They're a strong team, I still think they have a lot of qualities that people don't see right now," UW senior goalie Bernd Bruckler said. "It definitely hasn't come together 100 percent for them yet, but I think they're dangerous. … We respect them a lot."
The Sioux have a decent frontline but still have at least another year or two before it hits its peak. Aside from senior Colby Genoway, who is among the nation's leaders in assists with 26, experience is not plentiful in the ranks of the Sioux scorers.
Nor can it be found in net, where freshman Philippe Lamoureux and sophomore Jordan Parise have proved less than reliable lately after a hot start to the year. Neither netmind has recorded a shutout all year and the two combined surrendered 16 goals over the last two weekends. Though the North Dakota defense is considered the strength of the team, it will have to perform at peak level to keep the highly regarded Wisconsin attack from exposing this weakness.
"They have one of the toughest D corps in the country," junior captain Adam Burish said. "They've got big D men that are as tough as anybody. They're just physically demanding on you."
Though the balanced Badgers will be heavily favored against struggling UND, it is the home team that may need the win more. North Dakota is locked in a race with Minnesota-Duluth and Alaska-Anchorage for home ice advantage in the first round of the WCHA playoffs and will see its quest dealt a potentially fatal blow should it surrender four points to the Badgers.
"It's like a wounded animal," Burish said. "They're going to fight for every point they can get. Every loose puck they're going to be going after because they want that home ice."
This is not to say Wisconsin is without motivation, however. With the postseason approaching and single elimination the name of the game, the Badgers are putting an emphasis on building up momentum and putting together their first winning streak in more than a month. With their schedule easing up for the first time in several weeks, the opportunity to do this is ripe.
"Its big that we have that confidence level again that we know we can win back-to-back, especially on the road" Bruckler said. "If we can show that to ourselves then it'll be big for our confidence I think."
Perhaps this weekend's showdown in Grand Forks is not the pivotal weekend many fans hoped it would be, but neither the Badgers nor the Sioux will be looking past it. Though the result of this series will not necessarily impact Wisconsin's championship dreams, the tone it sets heading into their season finale very well may.
Wisconsin faces off with North Dakota at 3:35 pm on Saturday and Sunday.
What:No. 6 Wisconsin (21-9-2 overall, 16-7-1 WCHA) at North Dakota (16-13-3, 11-12-1)
When:Saturday, Feb. 26 and Sunday, Feb. 27 at 3:35 p.m.
Where:Ralph Engelstad Arena (11,406) in Grand Forks, N.D.
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 74-52-9… The last time these teams met, the Badgers swept the Fighting Sioux 1-0 and 5-2 last November… Wisconsin plays at Ralph Engelstad Arena for the first time since Nov. 22-23, 2002… UND needs to sweep Wisconsin or hope the University of Minnesota-Duluth gets swept in order to clinch home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs…The teams are playing Saturday and Sunday afternoons to accommodate for the North Dakota high school hockey tournament, which will be held this weekend at the arena.