Men's hockey: No games, but work to do

After holiday break, Badgers have bye this weekend before a challenging stretch begins.

By the time the University of Wisconsin men's hockey team laces up its skates at Colorado College next Friday, the Badgers will have gone 34 days since they last played a game in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. In the meantime, UW played an exhibition game Dec. 16 and won its holiday tournament, the Badger Hockey Showdown, Dec. 30-31.

Not exactly a taxing stretch of the schedule, but such layoffs can be hazardous. The No. 1-ranked Badgers (16-2-2 overall, 11-1-2 WCHA) can ill afford to let their skills slip with consecutive series against the likes of Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth on deck.

"The next four weekends are just big weekends," senior captain Adam Burish said. "You have to be up for them, you've got to be ready to play your best."

With that in mind, and with no games to be played this weekend, the Badgers spent Thursday skating… and skating…. and skating… and skating some more. Toward the end of a grueling practice at the Dane County Coliseum, the Badgers conducted a lengthy 3-on-3 full-ice segment, then indulged in an arduous conditioning segment, skating as hard and as long in practice as they have in quite some time.

"It's not punishment," senior forward Nick Licari said. "It's just the way we practice. If we want to be where we need to be at the end of the year we're going to have to do that kind of stuff. We don't do it every day…. But we don't play a game this weekend, so we kind of thought that one of these days would be a hard day."

Thursday proved to be that day. The Badgers took part in scrimmage sessions Friday and were set to have the weekend off after a practice Saturday morning.

The end-of-the-year goal that Licari alluded to is winning a national championship. But that will not take place if the Badgers fade in the second semester as they did last season.

In that regard, last weekend's dominant performance at the Badger Hockey Showdown is a very positive development.

Wisconsin belted Western Michigan 4-1 Dec. 30, then drilled Northern Michigan 5-1 the following evening. Granted, UW's competition to start 2006 will be much more difficult, but this was the first time the Badgers had won their own tournament since the 2002 event. And it is not like UW was an underdog in the 2003 and 2004 games.

This year, however, the Badgers came back from a two-week, post-exhibition layoff and managed to stay relatively sharp.

"Everybody kind of loses a step and it's always a challenge to get that back," Licari said of the holiday break. "And that's kind of where we've tripped up in the last couple years. We haven't done so well in the Showdown because we haven't been on top of our game. We actually did a pretty good job this year getting back at it and winning a couple games."

But right after jumping into the fray over New Year's weekend, the Badgers strode into a bye week, giving them another opportunity to get rusty.

"We are staying at it here this week a little and hopefully that will keep us from putting all that rust back on," sophomore defenseman Joe Piskula said. "I know last year we came back (from the holiday break) a little rusty… I just feel like this year we're not like in that situation. I really feel like everybody's ready to go again."

Wisconsin has not spent this week prepping for Colorado College or any of its other future opponents. Instead, the Badgers have used the time to refine their skills.

"This week we've been able to work on some little things that we wanted to work on throughout the season," Burish said. "Now we'll have a chance to kind of implement some new forechecks, some face-off plays… that will help us down the stretch."

So despite playing only two regular season games in what will be more than a month, UW is looking at this free weekend as a positive.

Said Burish: "I kind of like it. I think it's harder than people realize to take two weeks off and then come and play right away… That's hard. It's hard on your body. All of a sudden you've just got to turn the switch on quick and then start banging and you start battling like that."

Licari said he would rather keep playing, but that it was also nice to have some time off.

"You always look forward to having your week off during the school year," he said. "It's kind of nice to get caught up on school work and that kind of thing. It's definitely more relaxing. Now that we don't have school right now it's kind of weird."

On the ice, the Badgers had this week to recuperate from the Showdown, until Thursday.

"It was about getting back to the hard," coach Mike Eaves said. "Guys come in great shape at the beginning of the year. The team that usually has a better chance of winning at the end of the year is a team that's maintaining their strength and conditioning."

So far, Eaves is pleased with what he sees.

"I think (strength and conditioning coach Mike Potenza) has done a nice job in their strength and conditioning off the ice," Eaves said. "(Thursday) was a little bit about just doing some skating. Just getting their skating muscles (working)."

The Badgers' Thursday conditioning helped replace the workout the team could have received from playing a pair of games this weekend.

"The tempo's been really good in practice, but you still need to grind it out a little bit," Eaves said.

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