The Stretch Run

With 11 games left in the WCHA conference season, the Badgers play seven at home and four in the state of Minnesota. Although the schedule appears in the Badgers favor, Wisconsin will be seeing plenty of ranked teams along the way and will need to kick its game up a notch in order to win its first league title since 2000.

MADISON — As well as the Wisconsin men's hockey team has played over the past two and a half months, the real test begins now.

A 10-1-1 stretch in Western Collegiate Hockey Association action dating back to Nov. 1 – marred only by a lone bad weekend conveniently played against non-conference weaklink Northern Michigan – has vaulted the Badgers to within a point of first place in the conference standings.

But that could all change very quickly in the rough-and-tumble WCHA, if the Badgers don't step up their game a notch to match some of the best teams in the conference (and the country).

Wisconsin's final twelve games are all against teams either ranked in the latest poll (hosting No. 11 Colorado College, No. 4 Denver and No. 17 North Dakota and visiting No. 7 Minnesota) or receiving votes (bringing in Minnesota Duluth and going to Minnesota State).

Thus, not only does No. 16-ranked Wisconsin need to continue accruing points to claim home ice for the opening rounds of the playoffs and the highest seed possible – not to mention staying in contention for the MacNaughton Cup – but it can directly block conference foes from doing so through its own efforts.

Friday night was a great start. The Badgers were crisp from the start in pounding No. 11 Colorado College 6-1, with production from a who's-who list of Badgers helping to chase Tigers goalie Richard Bachman (who owns the conference's second-best goals-against average at 2.22) early in the third period.

"We got primary scoring, we got secondary scoring, we had a lot of guys chip in and have multiple points for tonight," UW coach Mike Eaves said.

Five different Badgers recorded two or more points in the game, led by Andy Bohmbach, who had the first two-goal night of his Wisconsin career to go along with an assist.

"(Andy)'s starting to understand what he needs to do in preparation to do the things he's capable of doing," Eaves said. "He's growing and maturing as a person, which is helping him to grow and mature as a hockey player. They go hand in hand."

UW was just as good at the other end, getting a 29-save effort from a heating-up Shane Connelly.

"They're a pretty good team," CC coach Scott Owens said. "They're well-balanced, they're big. Different guys check in, their (defense) is still good. Connelly looked OK in the first 10 minutes, then he got it going pretty good."

It works to UW's advantage that it has eight of its last 12 at the Kohl Center and with a certain basketball team gradually slipping in the Big Ten, you never know how fast that hockey bandwagon could grow. Plus, Wisconsin will take opportunity of two byes down the stretch; next weekend and Valentine's Day weekend – a bit of a rarity during conference play.

It also bodes well for Wisconsin that forward Patrick Johnson returned Friday from a five-game absence, and defender Brendan Smith should be back in the near future as well.

"He's got to get the rust off," Eaves said of Johnson. "He knows it. But it's good to have him on the bench, his energy and his life in the locker room. But you could tell he hasn't played in a while, we've got to get him going."

Forward John Mitchell, who had a goal and two assists Friday, was quick to point out that Wisconsin is used to such arduous schedules as the one it faces in the season's final eight weeks.

"We played the good caliber teams at the beginning of the season too, with Denver, Minnesota, BC and New Hampshire," Mitchell said. "So we'll be ready. We had a tough beginning of the season, and that's going to help us carry into the last part of the season, finishing strong."

Wisconsin knows it will have to do just that Saturday against Colorado College, who like UW cannot afford to lose any more ground in the WCHA pecking order.

"We can't come back tomorrow, know we beat them by five goals, and come out soft. We've got to come out harder than they're going to come out, we know that they're going to be fired up to play tomorrow," Bohmbach said. "We've got to play even better tomorrow."

Even if the focus is on the next night, tonight was a glorious night for a Wisconsin team that needs to continue playing like this in order to erase that hideous 0-4-1 record in its opening five WCHA games.

"I think it's important," Eaves said. "I know because of our start, we recognize what we have to do to some degree, and that's put points on the board and win games.

"So to come back and get this start and have our team come together has been a good start for us," Eaves continued. "We have to keep building on that."

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