Preview: Charting the Course

After finding its identity in a five-goal third period at North Dakota, Wisconsin hockey has been on a tear over the past four months. Sitting one point behind first place, the Badgers will have a chance to continue the renaissance against conference-leader Denver this weekend.

MADISON – The tape is so obsolete that head coach Mike Eaves has rendered it useless, choosing instead to file the copy in the archives rather than dust it off for his team's viewing pleasure.

Coming off two non-conference losses at then-No.1 Boston College and then-No.7 New Hampshire, Wisconsin opened the WCHA season at Denver, hoping to get off on the right foot in the race for the MacNaughton Cup.

The results spoke for themselves. Wisconsin blew two leads Friday night, including a three-goal advantage in the second, and gave up seven goals a day later in what many Badgers consider the low point of their season.

"It was a dark weekend for us," Eaves said. "Not a lot went well in any position."

Times have certainly changed since. The Badgers, fresh off at road sweep over Minnesota, have won 13 league games (the most since 2005-06) and are 13-3-1 over their last 17 WCHA contests.

The results are huge testament don't reflect the Wisconsin team that went 0-6-1 to begin the season and don't reflect a team that was struggling to find its identity. Instead, they show a team that has build character and trust in one another, learn to deal with adversity and has become mentally tough when playing with even the slimmest of leads.

"We're playing more as a team and we're playing with more belief," said senior goalie Shane Connelly "There's no true miracle, but guys just started believing in themselves, believing in the system and believing in the team. We weren't a team in Denver. That's what makes us so much better now."

They weren't a team at home against then-No.7 Minnesota or on the road against then-No.18 North Dakota in the first game of that series, a game in which Wisconsin saw a 2-1 third-period lead turn into a 3-2 loss, keeping Wisconsin winless at the time.

But one night later, with UW trailing 2-0 heading into the final period, the Badgers started to see a reflection in the mirror, starting to fit the pieces in the puzzle and won their first game of the season by scoring five unanswered goals to start their incredible hot streak.

"A little bit of belief was restored then," Connelly said. "We celebrated like we won a national championship."

Nearly 100 percent healthy and enjoying another bye week to rest up for the three week sprint to the end, Wisconsin has a chance to accomplish one of its intermediate goals, win the WCHA regular season title for the first time since 2000, when first place Denver (17-9-4, 13-7-3 WCHA) comes to Madison for a highly-important weekend series.

With six games left in the season, the Badgers (16-11-3, 13-7-2 WCHA) sit in third place with 28 points, just one point behind Denver (who has played one more game than UW) and North Dakota (who UW plays at home the final week of the season).

"A lot of guys are opening their eyes and realizing that we're in this race," junior John Mitchell said. "We're one point behind first and we have a chance to do this. The WCHA is recognized as one of the toughest leagues in the nation, if not the hardest. To pull out a league victory over these teams would be huge for us."

While Wisconsin has changed this season, the Pioneers, who are 11-2-2 all-time at the Kohl Center, are still the same. A team that is pressure oriented on both the power play and the penalty kill and loved to move the puck in transition, the Badgers know there are no surprises when it comes to Denver.

"They have a lot of dynamic players that have a lot of skill and can be a grinder, too," Connelly said. "They always have guys that can step up and (the coaches) find these guys that have incredible shots, can change the angle of the puck and skate really well. You never know what they are going to throw at you because of the skill they bring."

Because of the skill Denver has, Eaves' biggest concern coming off the bye week is being able to match the tempo of the game. After Wisconsin's last week off, the Badgers, despite playing a sluggish first period, were able to enter the second period tied at one on their way to a 3-1 victory over Minnesota-Duluth.

A sluggish first period Friday might not be as kind this time around.

"You can't duplicate the pace or energy when you are practicing, as much as you try," Eaves said. "You can say that you are playing up tempo but there's a whole other level in a game."

With Wisconsin 9-3-0 in its last 12 games against ranked teams and the Badgers special teams clicking, confidence is running high in the Kohl Center. Imagine what a three-point-or-better weekend would do?

"We're very confidence and confident in the process, which leads to winning," Mitchell said. "Every one knows how hard to try and what's on the line. Everyone is ready to go and we're down to the point in the season where everything is a habit and comes naturally. To be the best, you've got to beat the best team. That opportunity has struck this weekend."

No.8 Denver (17-9-4, 13-7-3 WCHA) vs. No.13 Wisconsin (16-11-3, 13-7-2 WCHA)

Date/Time - Friday-Saturday, Feb. 20-21 at 7 p.m. CT

Arena – Kohl Center (15,237) - 200' x 97'

Television - Live Friday on NHL Network and MyMadisonTV (Paul Braun and Rob Andringa). Saturday on FSN Wisconsin and FSN Rocky Mountain. Both nights tape-delayed on Wisconsin Public Television.

Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Brian Posick and Mike Cerniglia)

Series – Wisconsin leads 71-52-9 (33-27-5 in Minneapolis)

Last Meeting – The Badgers fell 7-4 in Denver, getting swept over the Oct. <17-18 weekend

Series Notes

This will mark the 133rd and 134th meeting between the schools, the Badgers are 2-11-2 against Denver at the Kohl Center, including 2-7-0 under Eaves. One of those two victories came on March 29, 2008 in a 6-2 game in the first round of the 2009 NCAA Tournament.

Eaves and Denver head coach George Gwozdecky were teammates on UW's 1977 NCAA championship team.

Despite this year's DU sweep, the Badgers are 5-3-0 against DU over the last eight games, though just one of the last eight contests was played in Madison.

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