Men's hockey: No letting down

Wisconsin will have to look out for potholes against last-place Michigan Tech

This weekend's series has all the makings of a letdown.

It pits the nation's and WCHA's top team against the league's worst, the nation's and league's top defense against the WCHA's worst, the hottest goaltender in the nation against two struggling rookies.

Yet the veteran Badgers seem to have found the mindset necessary to escape any setbacks against cellar-dwelling Michigan Tech (1-8-1 WCHA, 2-13-1 overall).

Although the game presents the league's biggest mismatch — No. 1 Wisconsin (10-0-2, 13-1-2) holds the WCHA's top spot with 22 points while the Huskies are bringing up the rear with 3 — the Badgers learned long ago not to take any opponent lightly.

"Nothing's changed. We're doing the exact same things the way we're preparing," senior captain Adam Burish said. "We want to do everything we can to keep this thing going. As a mature, veteran team, I think we realize how important these games are still."

Still, these teams could not be any more opposite as far as statistics are concerned. Wisconsin owns the nation's and the league's top defense, letting in just 1.44 goals per game, while Michigan Tech is the WCHA's worst, allowing three more goals per game than UW.

In net, the Badgers have the hottest goalie in the country in Brian Elliott, who leads the nation with a 1.44 goals against average and a .945 save percentage. Michigan Tech has had to rely on a pair of rookies—Rob Nolan and Michael-Lee Teslak—who are together at the bottom of the league. They are both allowing more than four goals per game and have save percentages of lower than .875.

On offense, Wisconsin has four lines capable of scoring on any given night. The Huskies are again relying on seniors Chris Conner, Taggert Desmet and Brandon Schwartz. The three have combined for 16 of the team's 30 goals and 17 assists.

"We have to be aware of where [Conner] is on the power play and even on the penalty kill he's dangerous," Burish said. "We approaching it just the same way we [approached the top lines] of other teams—just be aware if they're on the ice, but don't do anything different."

Michigan Tech has been outscored an abominable 29-3 over its last five games.

For Wisconsin, this weekend will also feature the debut of freshman backup goaltender Shane Connelly.

Badger head coach Mike Eaves said Thursday that Elliott would start Friday night.

"We'll make a decision for Saturday," Eaves said. "We want to win [Friday] and we want to keep this thing going. Brian wants to play. He doesn't want to give it up."

"Obviously you like to play so I'd like to keep going in there," Elliott said. "Nobody's sure what's going to happen. Whatever happens I'll be happy with it."

Of course, Elliott knows what it's like to be in Connelly's skates—he was there the past two years, hoping for ice time while backing up Bernd Bruckler.

"As a backup you're definitely looking for your chances," Elliott said. "I don't have any worries that he's not going to be prepared."

Undoubtedly there would be a lot riding on the line if Connelly was to make his debut. If the Badgers win Friday, he could be in charge of helping the Badgers' break the school-record unbeaten streak Saturday, as well as solidifying the team's stronghold atop the league.

Nonetheless, the players will be confident with whoever is backstopping them this weekend.

"I think we're all excited to see what [Connelly] can do," Burish said. "If he is in net, maybe that will help us focus that much more, because we're not sure what to expect. But we'll be confident in him."

No matter who is in net, it seems that this veteran Badger team has everything in place mentally to dodge a setback against the Huskies this weekend. Now the trick will be translating that mental preparation to the ice tonight.

What: Michigan Tech (1-8-1 WCHA, 2-13-1 overall) at No. 1 Wisconsin (10-0-2, 13-1-2)
When: Friday, Dec. 9, 7 p.m.; and Saturday, Dec. 10, 8 p.m.
Site: Kohl Center, Madison, Wis.
Broadcasts: Saturday's game will be televised live on UPN. Both games will be shown tape-delayed on Wisconsin Public Television. They can also be heard live on the radio on 1310 AM WIBA.
Series notes: Wisconsin leads the all-time series 81-46-6 and 50-15-4 in Madison. The Badgers have won 18 of the last 20 meetings between the two schools.

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