Minnesota-Duluth an imposing tune-up

Badgers put difficult February stretch behind them, set sights on postseason

With a treacherous month of February safely in the rearview mirror, the University of Wisconsin men's hockey team has one Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular season weekend left before a much-anticipated postseason begins.

A 2-4-2 February mark dropped the Badgers (16-8-2 WCHA, 21-10-3 overall) out of contention for the McNaughton Cup, but there is plenty to play for this weekend. UW will clinch third place in the WCHA if it can pry two points from its road set at Minnesota-Duluth (10-13-3, 14-15-5) Friday and Saturday, or if Michigan Tech can take two points from fourth-place Minnesota.

The Badgers also have the opportunity to work out the chinks in their armor that have developed through February's many trials.

"We definitely were looking forward to the stretch and we also knew it was going to be very tough," senior goaltender Bernd Bruckler said. "It just took a lot out of our bodies but also got us ready for the playoffs."

For Wisconsin, February was always going to be a challenge. With the WCHA regular season championship within reach, the Badgers played four likely NCAA playoff teams, including three potential No. 1 seeds, in back-to-back-to-back-to-back weekends.

Facing off with Minnesota, Denver, Colorado College and North Dakota in rapid succession would be a test under any circumstances. The young Badgers, though, hit a wall offensively going into the month, particularly on a power play that has been dreadful since the last two games of January. Offense in general has been a struggle for UW in its past 10 games.

"It's mental," said sophomore wing Robbie Earl, UW's leading scorer. "Everybody [is] holding their stick a little bit too tight."

Regardless of what transpires this weekend, the Badgers know they will host the first round of the WCHA playoffs March 11-13 at the Alliant Energy Center Coliseum. But finishing third ensures that a win in the opening-round series would advance UW to the semifinals of the WCHA Final Five. An advancing No. 4 seed, on the other hand, may have to play in the Final Five play-in game.

"We definitely want to finish third because fourth and fifth it's a long playoff run for the WCHA," junior defenseman Tom Gilbert said. "But we get three or four points, we get some momentum coming into the playoffs."

In the grand scheme of things, however, third place may be less important to UW than solving its offensive ills.

Prior to a Jan. 21-22 series with Notre Dame, the Badgers were leading the league with a 23.7 percent conversion rate with the man-advantage, but they have gone 4-for-52 in the 10 games since. UW is 2-for-28 on the power play in the past six games; 0-for-15 in the last three.

"I think it's more important to get those things going," assistant coach Troy Ward said. "If we don't get those things going, I don't think the points will take care of themselves and that runs us into the first weekend here at the Coliseum where we're not going to be sure what we're going to get."

From a goal-scoring standpoint, Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves liked what he saw in practice this week but cautioned that the Badgers still need to get it done on the ice Friday and Saturday night in Duluth.

Said Eaves: "Slowly but surely. You don't turn a big ship around in one minute."

While Wisconsin is striving to find its offensive legs this weekend, the Badgers hope Duluth does not kick its considerable talent into high gear. The Bulldogs were the preseason favorite to win the McNaughton Cup, but they have hovered around .500 for much of the season.

"I think everybody around the locker room, around the league was a little bit surprised that they aren't any higher than they are," Bruckler said. "But then also they are a dangerous team. Then can probably bring it together within a weekend or two. That's what makes them scary and definitely it's going to be a good weekend of hockey up there."

Unlike the Badgers, UMD has not had any difficulty putting the puck in the net recently, having scored 19 goals in its past four games and 15 during its current three-game winning streak. Senior center Evan Schwabe leads the team in goals (19) and assists (25), pacing a program that has 10 players with double-figure point tallies.

"They have the chance to strike at any time and blow somebody out," Ward said. "When they beat DU [6-3] a couple weekends [ago] in Denver the way they did I wasn't surprised by that."

The key for UMD, though, is junior goaltender Isaac Reichmuth, who boasts a respectable .900 save percentage but is allowing 2.88 goals per game.

"If Reichmuth plays to his capabilities as he has as a freshman and sophomore they are capable of [competing for WCHA Tournament Title]," Ward said. "Cause they have guys that have magic. They do have some guys that know their way around the rink pretty well."

UW's magic has been missing. Just ask Earl, who has just one assist on the score sheet in the past four games.

"I just have to realize that I'm playing against the top defense every night and every shift I got to go 100 percent," Earl said.

Ward will be looking for effort and aggression out of the power play, and the offense in general, this weekend. In reviewing film, he has been pleased with the Badgers' defensive zone play and its play away from the puck, but the offensive end has left something to be desired.

"Our play with the puck has to become harder," Ward said. "We have to want to get to the net, we have to want to screen. We have to do all the intangibles that it takes to be a good offensive team."

Like UMD, however, these Badgers could break out at any time.

"We are getting closer," Eaves said. "I can feel it."

What: Wisconsin (16-8-2 WCHA, 21-10-3 overall) at Minnesota-Duluth (10-13-3, 14-15-5).
When: Friday, March 4 and Saturday, March 5 at 7:07 p.m.
Where: The Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center (5,333) in Duluth, Minn.
Broadcasts: The games will be televised live by Fox Sports North and broadcast live on the radio by WIBA AM 1310.
Series notes: Wisconsin leads the all-time series 80-52-9, including a 32-31-5 mark in Duluth. The Badgers swept UMD earlier this season, winning each game 3-2 at the Kohl Center in Madison.

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