Men's hockey: Eye on No. 1

Second-ranked UW spent two months at the top; Badgers gained confidence from first Gopher series

MADISON—The University of Wisconsin men's hockey team wants to be No. 1 at the end of the season, hoisting a national championship trophy in the air. Maintaining the No. 1 ranking in the polls for nearly two months helped show the Badgers what it takes to stay on top—and what they will need to do return to that pedestal.

The Badgers grabbed the No. 1 ranking in both the and USA Today polls Nov. 28, following wins at Michigan State and at then-No. 1 Michigan. Wisconsin proceeded to hold the top ranking for seven consecutive polls, only relinquishing it this week after being swept by Denver.

"It's definitely something special," senior forward Nick Licari said. "But it's obviously—you probably hear this a lot—it's who is No. 1 at the end of the year.

"It was definitely nice. It was the first time since I've been here that we've been No. 1 for any period time, let alone for a couple months."

This weekend No. 2 Wisconsin (18-4-2 overall, 13-3-2 WCHA) hosts No. 4 Minnesota (16-6-4, 11-5-2) in a border battle that will have a huge impact on the WCHA race. A strong showing could also return the Badgers to the top spot in the national polls.

"We want the No. 1 spot back," Licari said. "And I think if we can get a couple wins this weekend, hopefully we will get that back. It's important to us. Yeah, it's a number and like I said it's who is No. 1 at the end of the year but it's definitely something to be proud of. I think you gain confidence and it makes us realize what we need to do to get back there."

It should be noted that Wisconsin is still No. 1 in the PairWise rankings, which are based on the NCAA's tournament selection process. Minnesota is No. 3 in the PWR.

"I think overall it really doesn't matter," junior forward Jake Dowell said of sliding to No. 2 in the polls. "We're still up there. There's a lot of season left to be played… It's nice to be recognized as the top team but it really doesn't matter (until) the end. It's nice if we can get us a good No. 1 seed come playoff time, but other than that it really doesn't mean anything now."

Licari said it is not disappointing to be No. 2, necessarily, but that the team wishes to be No. 1

"But at the same time it's really not that big of a deal," he said. "It is only a number in front of the name Wisconsin.

"It's a group of guys in the locker room—that's what we play for. We don't (play) for polls. We play for the fans, the alumni, the symbol on the jersey… we (have) to go out and play hard every night."

Minnesota memories

Wisconsin skated into the Twin Cities in early December riding high. The Badgers were ranked No. 1 in the country and had lost just one game all season. But they had to face their nemesis Minnesota on the road, in the house of UW horrors that had been Mariucci Arena, where the Badgers had lost 10 straight against the Gophers. No matter. Wisconsin went into that road series with a lot of confidence and proceeded to sweep Minnesota 4-3, 4-0.

"It definitely was special getting a road sweep in Minnesota my senior year," Licari said. "Especially (since) a couple of the losses that we've had in there are pretty ugly. It was cool. And it was definitely something to keep our heads (held high). It taught us that we can go into a… hostile environment and get some wins.

"You can look back at the North Dakota series at the same time. Those are two pretty tough places to play and we got four wins out of there."

Dowell agreed that sweeping Minnesota in Mariucci gave the Badgers a huge jolt of confidence, even though they were already flying high. Dowell also emphasized UW's two series against Colorado College: a three-point weekend in Madison and a sweep in Colorado Springs.

"For a team to win in our league… you have to pull off some upsets on the road and play really, really well on the road and then you defend your home ice as well," Dowell said. "We need to take care of our home ice this weekend and then we'll go back on the road for a while and keep our positive stretch going on the road."

Following this series, UW plays three series on the road and one game on neutral ice before wrapping up the regular season by hosting St. Cloud State March 3-4.

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