The Pioneers have played solid for the first part of the season, but it is a known fact to the Wisconsin party that the hockey season is long and tiresome. The second half of the season is the push the Badgers need to make it into the post season. This is Wisconsin's time to take their games to the next level and remain mentally and physically tough to make up for the first-half struggles.
With a plethora of freshman and Badgers manning new positions, it has been no surprise that the team has taken awhile to gel with the new freshman. The Badgers are connecting the dots on their lines and connecting as a team.
Last Saturday in the second game against Colorado College, the Badgers suited up four freshman defensemen, a number that even make Eaves stand back in surprise.
"That's pretty amazing," Eaves said. "I said that to (assistant coach Mark) Osiecki as we were talking, 'Do you realize we had four freshmen?' It's funny. When you're put in a situation that you just have to play, and afterward, you step back and say, gee, we had four freshmen in that lineup tonight against the number four team in the country.
"All those young defensemen, they did some good things."
With the return of Jamie McBain and Blake Geoffrion (Team USA) and Kyle Turris, who won the gold for Canada, from the World Junior Championships, Wisconsin is seemingly back to full strength for the first time since before Christmas and ready for the second half.
For some teams, the transition of their players coming back from the junior championships is a challenge to readjust. Positions had to be replaced and the remaining players had to play with teammates they have never been on the same line with. The players can also come back without any issue and the whole team can move forward without any transition period. Head coach Mike Eaves has seen the transition happen in two ways.
"I've seen where it's taken a week and a couple games and another week before things finally get back to where you'd like them," Eaves said. "I think that getting them back, a lot of it will depend how they recover here, do they have any nicks and bangs, and the travel that they've had, you know, how are they feeling. They'll have a large part to do with how quickly we come back together as a group."
Blake Geoffrion and Jamie McBain played against Kyle Turris with a lot to prove for Team USA trying to get to the gold medal round. There had been rumors Geoffrion and Turris were exchanging taunting emails before the big game (Canada beat Team USA to go onto the gold medal game against Sweden). Eaves has disregarded these comments, saying that he does not think any mending of fences will be in order.
"First of all, I don't know if they did have that," Eaves said about Turris and Geoffrions' alleged email exchange. "And I know once we get back here, we're all about the red and white and the Badgers and getting things done, so that we can be where we want to be at the end of the year."
In an effort to boost the struggling power play and find a spark, Eaves has been switching lines since the Badger Hockey Showdown. With the loss of Kyle Turris, junior Ben Street fulfilled the role of center and was kept there last weekend against CC, as he has shown the coaching staff that he can be a leader from the center position.
"Just to give us a different look and hopefully find a spark," Eaves said on his decision to keep Street at Center. "He did some good things for us against CC. He's taking on his leadership role."
The Badgers have their work cut out for them. Denver has one of the conference's best goalies in Peter Mannino in the net. A Hobey Baker Award candidate, Mannino has a 1.76 goals against average and, as a senior, has a lot of experience against the Badgers.
Denver's leading scorer, Brock Trotter, is ranked sixth in the nation with 12 goals and 27 points. Tied for 27th in the nation is freshman Tyler Bozak with 10 goals and 21 points. Bozak also is tied second in the nation for shorthanded goals which is a scary stat for the Badgers lately.
The key for the Badgers this weekend is no turnovers. That needs to be the mantra for the entire team and with three weapons returning (Turris scored four goals over in the Czech Republic), the Badgers have the offensive weapons to compete with Denver.
Turris, with seven goals and 21 points, and Street (eight goals, 21 points) need to have a good transition to score goals on Mannino and score early to get the momentum flowing for the Badgers.
"We're just trying to prepare our best," Eaves said. "(We need to) get our lineups going and do things that we need to do and that we think will help us win."
Wisconsin Badgers (8-9-3, 4-7-1 WCHA) at Denver (16-4-0, 11-3-0 WCHA)
Dates/Times: Fri.-Sat, Jan. 11-12 at 8:30/8 p.m.
Location: Magness Arena (6,026)
Live TV: Friday on FSN Wisconsin and FSN Rocky Mountain. Saturday on FSN Rocky Mountain.
Tape-Delay TV: Saturday on FSN Wisconsin tape delayed on Sunday at 1 p.m.
Live Stats: denverpioneers.com
Radio: Wisconsin Radio Network (Brian Posick/Bill Howard) ... affiliates throughout Wisconsin, including in Madison on WIBA 1310 AM (Friday) and WTSO 1070 AM (Saturday)
Polls: UW (USA Today: RV/USCHO: 17); Denver (2/3)
Coaches: Wisconsin's Mike Eaves (6th year: 115-87-26); Denver's George Gwozdecky (22nd overall: 463-319-61; 14th at DU: 313-195-40)
Last Meeting: W, 2-1, Denver, 3/10/07
First Meeting: L, 1-7, Denver, 1/31/68
Series Records: Wisconsin leads 69-49-9
At DU: UW leads 36-22-4