Make or Break

Currently on its longest unbeaten streak of the season, No.3 Wisconsin welcomes back its three World Junior gold medalists. Just in time, as the Badgers head to Colorado College to kick off a critical three week stretch that will determine their fate.

MADISON – Two things came to mind when Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves was asked what the benefits were of having forward Derek Stepan and defensemen Jake Gardiner and John Ramage off winning a gold medal for the USA's World Junior squad.

The first benefit that sprung into mind was the level of play and the pace of the game at the World Junior Tournament, held this past year in Saskatchewan, was incredibly quick, causing his players to make fast-paced decisions.

The second was the experience of his young players competing in a championship environment for a coveted trophy, something that's tough to put a price on during the players' long-term developments.

How fitting that those three learned a lesson that the rest of players for the University of Wisconsin men's hockey team will need to reiterate together in a make-or-break stretch.

Unbeaten in its last six games, No.3 Wisconsin will face three teams above them in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association standings over the next three weeks, starting with No.8 Colorado College at the World Arena this Friday and Saturday.

"These three weeks are huge for us, especially starting with CC," Gardiner said. "They've been ranked the whole year, top half of the WCHA and took three points from us. These weeks are big for our confidence and big for our points."

Confidence has been the difference for the Badgers (12-5-2, 8-4-2 WCHA) since these two teams met in UW's season opener. The Badgers are scoring four goals per game, the second-highest mark in the nation, while giving up only 2.2 goals per contest, a mark that ranks them sixth in the country.

When Wisconsin faced Colorado College in the season opener, the Tigers took three points due to the fact they out hustled, out battled and out played the home team. Now the Badgers have developed the quickness and tenacity with the puck tucked that have the abilities to translate that game to the Olympic-sized ice sheet (200x100).

"The bigger the challenge, the more fun you have," Eaves said. "The way you play is how you practice, so I think that carries forth. They know it's a big stretch, but we always talk about the first 20 minutes."

The lineups for the Badgers have also received a healthy makeover since that opening week. Senior tri-captain Blake Geoffrion and junior Brendan Smith both were injured in the second game of the series and didn't compete in UW's 1-1 tie.

Geoffrion has been on a tear all season, scoring 14 goals (10th best in the country) and Smith, who leads the Badgers with 19 assists and 27 points, tops among the nation's defensemen.

Senior right winger Michael Davies was a healthy scratch that weekend, because Eaves didn't think his top returning career scorer was playing to his capabilities. Davies got the message, as the senior sits third on the team in scoring with 8 goals, 13 assists and 21 points and was named the Badger Hockey Showcase tournament MVP.

The Tigers (12-7-3 overall, 8-5-3 WCHA) haven't changed all that much, as the Tigers are still riding the success of freshman goaltender Joe Howe (2.48 goals against average, 91.6 save ratio), a main reason the Tigers, picked to finish eighth in a preseason poll of WCHA coaches, have been a big surprise in the race for the MacNaughton Cup race.

"I read a quote that asked, ‘Who is the best coach and why?'" Eaves quizzed. "It's the guy who has the best goalie. The goaltender is the main reason and they've jumped on that momentum train and rode it a little bit."

After the weekend with the Tigers, Wisconsin will return to the Kohl Center for a series against top-ranked Denver (who is 13-2-2 lifetime at Madison) only to return to the road for another important series at No.10 Minnesota Duluth.

If UW wants to win its first MacNaughton Cup since 2000, the Badgers will earn it before the calendar flips to February.

"They are great teams and we'll need to be on our A-game for sure," Ramage said. "Every game, we're going to battle hard and the hard work will come with results."

No.3 Wisconsin (12-5-3, 8-4-2 WCHA) vs. No.8 Colorado College (12-7-3, 8-5-3 WCHA)

Date/Time - Friday and Saturday, January 5-6 at 8:30/8 p.m. CT

Arena – World Arena (7,343) - Rink Size - 200 x 100

Television - None

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

Series – UW leads 105-58-9 (46-27-3 in Colorado Springs)

Last Meeting - Wisconsin and CC tied, 1-1, on Oct. 17 after losing 3-2 on Friday, October 16.

Series Notes

UW's 105 victories against Cc are the most against any school.

The Badgers are 1-8-1 over the last 10 games against Colorado College, even though the last six games have come in Madison

UW has dropped the past four games at World Arena (although it hasn't played there since Nov. 2007). The last victory for UW at CC was a 9-1 win that capped a sweep in January 2006 during UW's championship season.

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