Undefeated in seven of its past eight league games, the Badgers last series with a three-point triumph over then-third ranked North Dakota, vaulting them to third place in the conference and two points behind league-leader Denver.
Now after sitting on their hands for 20 days, seventh-ranked Wisconsin (11-5-2, 8-4-2) must go about the taxing task of getting its edge back.
"It's much like after you play a terrific first period and you're up 2-0, and you've dominated your shots, you've got a couple goals, you come into your locker room, and you sit down, and you feel pretty good about yourself," UW coach Mike Eaves said. "We finished the first half kind of like that, going up to North Dakota playing some good hockey. Now the task is, ‘How do we get that ball rolling again?' And that's not an easy question to answer."
The answer will be tougher to decipher Saturday against Merrimack (7-8-0) with the Badgers having to skate without sophomore forward Derek Stepan (22 points in 18 games), sophomore defenseman Jake Gardiner (plus-9 ratio) and freshman defenseman John Ramage (plus-12 ratio) this weekend after being selected to play for Team USA at the World Junior Championship in Saskatchewan.
"I can speak from both sides of my mouth in that it's an unbelievable opportunity for these young men to represent their country and play against the best kids in the world of this age group," Eaves said. "Talking out of the other side of my mouth, we'll miss these young men, and we have to find a way. It's like all of a sudden, we have self-induced injuries."
Losing players to the World Juniors for the eighth straight year, it could yield an explanation for why the Badgers look out of sorts during the Badger Hockey Showdown. Last season, Wisconsin was disjointed against Lake Superior State in the championship game, but managed to win its third title since Eaves took over in 2002 in a shootout, albeit with a touch of goal-review controversy.
Now the Badgers have to remake one third of their defense core without their defensive coach, as assistant coach Mark Osiecki is serving as an assistant with the World Juniors, and matched up against a Merrimack that has the fifth power play unit in the nation and averages 3.47 goals per game, 11th in the country.
"I can't tell you how many pieces of paper that I've crumpled up and threw in the wastepaper basket with different lineups in it," Eaves said. "We have three guys that are out of our lineup and we have to find a way to make up for their absence and have other young men step up."
The field for the final Showdown couldn't be a better way to go out. The other semifinal includes No.9 Yale (the top offense in the nation) and No. 11 Ferris State (a team that has twice beaten UW in the BHS), making the four-team field have a combined record of 38-19-6.
When the Showdown debuted in 1989, it was the premier Holiday tournament around the nation. Now with tournaments popping up all over the place, attendance slowly dipping and UW having to pay the three teams for participating, it was decided that the Showdown be discontinued and replaced with a non-conference series starting next season.
Should this be the last Showcase ever, UW winning won't only be sentimental for hockey purist, but will do wonders for the Badgers' strength of schedule and RPI come tournament time.
"I wouldn't be surprised in another eight to 10 years that this may come back," Eaves said. "I'm speculating, but that's just the course of life. I have some sport jackets that were out of style 10 years ago, they're looking pretty good now. And it's time to start bringing them out."
No.7 Wisconsin (11-5-2, 8-4-2 WCHA) vs. Merrimack (7-8-0, 4-6-0 Hockey East), UW vs. No.9 Yale (7-3-2, 4-1-2 ECAC) or No.11 Ferris State (13-3-2, 8-2-2 CCHA)
Date/Time - Saturday and Sunday, January 2-3 at 7 p.m. CT
Arena – Kohl Center (15,237) – Rink Size (200' x 97')
Television - None – Follow Badger Nation's Blog
Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Brian Posick and Mike Cerniglia)
Series – First meeting between UW and Merrimack, Series tied 2-2-0 (2-2-0 in Madison) vs. Ferris State, UW leads 7-2-1 (6-1-1 in Madison) vs. Yale
Last Meetings - Ferris State won 5-3 in the 2004 BHS championship game to complete back-to-back Showdown titles on Jan. 1, 2005; The Badgers tied the Bulldogs, 1-1, but advanced to the 2004 Badger Hockey Showdown title game with a shootout victory, before falling to Ferris State.
Four of the nation's top 12 offenses will take part in the BHS as Yale (1st - 4.33 goals-per-game), Wisconsin (2nd - 4.03 goals-per-game), Merrimack (11th - 3.47 goals-per-game) and Ferris State (T-12th - 3.44 goals-per-game) rank among the nation's highest scoring teams this season.
Wisconsin's offense leads the WCHA with an average of 4.06 goals-per-game and a total of 73 goals in 18 games. Wisconsin's scoring average is second in the country behind Showdown participant Yale (4.33 goals-per-game), while the 73 goals are most in the country.
Wisconsin's 7-3 victory at No. 7/8 Michigan State on Nov. 27 was its first game of the season against a team ranked at the time of the game. The Badgers traveled to No. 3 North Dakota on Dec. 11-12 and posted a tie and victory to improve to 2-0-1 against ranked opponents. The Badgers are in the middle of a stretch of 10 games during which they'll play nine teams currently ranked. According to USCHO.com's RPI, Wisconsin has played the 11th toughest schedule in the nation to date.
Junior goaltender Scott Gudmandson has started three consecutive games in goal for the Badgers for the first time in his career and owns a 2-0-1 mark during that stretch. For the season, Gudmandson is 5-2-2 with a 1.87 goals-against average, .925 save percentage and one shutout. He is 7-5-4 with a 2.48 goals-against average, .903 save percentage and two shutouts.
Senior tri-captain forward Blake Geoffrion has goals in each of his past two games, five of the last six and seven of the last nine contests. He has nine goals over the past nine games, including a hat trick on Dec. 4 against Michigan Tech. Geoffrion's 14 goals are tied for second in the nation and lead the WCHA while his 0.82 goals-per-game mark rank fourth in the country. His nine power-play goals are tied for the national lead.