Packing their bags for Duluth back in November, the unranked Badgers were sitting at 3-6-1, had only one road victory to their name and sat in a log jam in the WCHA conference standings.
Minus the standings log jam, the 15th-ranked Badgers have experienced a surge. Including taking three points from Minnesota-Duluth, Wisconsin is 10-2-1 over its last 13 league games, are 4-1-1 on the road and have won six of its last eight games against ranked teams.
After a jumbled team of youth and experience searching for answers, the Badgers are poised for the stretch run that could net their first WCHA title since 2000.
"We have a better understanding of what our identity is (and) I think we play to that identity a lot more," said UW coach Mike Eaves, comparing his team now and then. "We played some pretty decent hockey, and they were in the process of finding out who they are. They definitely know who they are now."
The same could be said for 16th-ranked Minnesota Duluth, who travel to the Kohl Center this weekend for a two-game set with the Badgers. Starting out 1-4-3 in conference, the Bulldogs have gotten some of their bite back, rattling off a season-high four straight wins, including sweeping in-state rival Minnesota State by a combined score of 11-4.
"They're starting to creep up," Eaves said of Duluth. "Every series that we have is going to be a big-time series going down the stretch here."
Knowing that factor, last weekend couldn't have worked out better for the Badgers. Enjoying their first of two weekends off in four weeks, Wisconsin was able to rest up for the stretch run and watched North Dakota take three points from first-place Denver and St. Cloud State take three points from third-place Colorado College.
As a result, Wisconsin, which entered the weekend one point out of first place, enter its series with Duluth only two points behind Denver for the top spot in the WCHA.
In hopes to avoid rust, however, Eaves commented that the end of last week was as competitive of practice as the Badgers have had, with Wisconsin working on situational play and fine tuning that will hopefully make the difference down the stretch and avoid a sluggish first period on Friday night.
With the Badgers currently sitting outside the NCAA tournament picture and the Bulldogs sitting on the bubble, this weekend series proves vital for both teams.
"From a structural standpoint, we accomplished what we wanted to, in terms of working at parts of our games, making sure that we condition, making sure that we made it competitive," Eaves said of the weekend off. "Now it's important that we follow up this week and come back to battling again and really be ready to fly on Friday night."
No.16 Minnesota Duluth (13-7-6, 7-6-5 WCHA) vs. No.15 Wisconsin (13-9-3, 10-6-2 WCHA)
Date/Time - Friday-Saturday, Jan. 30-31 at 7 p.m. CT
Arena – Kohl Center (15,237) - 200' x 97'
Television - Live on MyMadisonTV (Paul Braun and Rob Andrings) and tape delayed on Wisconsin Public Television (Robb Vogel and Ron Vincent)
Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Brian Posick and Mike Cerniglia)
Series – Wisconsin leads 85-55-13 (49-21-5 in Madison)
Last Meeting – The Badgers won 4-1 on Nov. 11, 2008 in Duluth
The Badgers won and tied at Duluth earlier this year, making the UW the only team to win in Duluth this season
UMD enters on a four-game winning streak, all at home, but the Bulldogs are 1-5-2 on the road this year
This weekend's match-up pits Wisconsin's league-leading offense at 3.72 goals-per game against Minnesota Duluth's top defense at 2.44 goals-against per game
The series also sees the league's top two power plays (UMD – 23.6 percent; UW – 22.8 percent) and the UW's second-ranked penalty kill (92.0 percent).
The Badger offense currently leads the league with a 3.72 goals-per game mark in the WCHA games. The UW has led the WCHA in scoring on two previous occasions, including the 1981–82 season (4.84 goals-per-game) and the 1976–77 campaign (6.00 goals per game).
The Badgers need a winning weekend to finish their third consecutive month with a winning record. The Badgers went 7-1-1 in November and 3-0-1 in December. The squad is 3-3-0 in January.
Wisconsin's line of junior Andy Bohmbach (3-3=6), junior Blake Geoffrion (3-3=6) and senior Tom Gorowsky (2-4=6) have combined for eight goals and 18 points in the last four games. Bohmbach, Geoffrion and Gorowsky each boast four-game scoring streaks.
Junior forward John Mitchell has a goal and five assists in a three-game scoring streak, which includes a five-point weekend against Colorado College in the UW's last weekend on Jan. 16-17.
Junior assistant captain and defenseman Jamie McBain leads the nation's defensemen in scoring with 28 points in 26 games played, which is a 1.08 points per game mark, also tops in the nation among rear guards.
In all games, McBain leads the WCHA with 22 power-play points, defensemen with 28 points and shares sixth among all players in scoring. In league contests, McBain is tied for third among WCHA players with 22 points, while he leads the league with18 assists and 18 power-play points.
Senior goaltender Shane Connelly's .913 save percentage in WCHA games ranks second in the league. The league leader is UMD goalie Alex Stalock at .920 save percentage.
Wisconsin's defensemen lead the nation in scoring with a 3.35 points per game average. The Badgers have the only defense averaging better than 3.00 points per game. The UW defensive corps leads the nation with 23 goals, two better than St. Lawrence. Badger defensemen have at least one point in every game this year.