Each weekend, the opponents seem to get tougher, and the series get more significant.
UMD is 9-2 in their last 11 WCHA games, and they have rode that wave to the top of the league. This marks the second straight time where the Bulldogs have opened play on the weekend with sole possession of first place in the standings.
In their way now: Wisconsin. The Badgers are hot themselves, coming off a three-point weekend against former league leader and national No. 1 Denver. This is the best hockey Wisconsin has played since they won the 2006 NCAA title (pictured).
But this is a bit of a different animal in Madison. The Badgers of recent years have carried the reputation for defense-first hockey, something that always seemed to irritate head coach Mike Eaves, no matter how true it looked.
Now, the offense leads the way. Of course, it's quickly followed by the defense.
"What's interesting is we're the same defensive team we were," head coach Mike Eaves said. "We're not giving up any more. All the principles of offense that we've talked about since Day One are in place, and it's just a matter of having the abilities of the individual players."
At 14-6-4 so far this year, Wisconsin is averaging 4.00 goals per game, tops in the WCHA and second to Yale (4.16) nationally. Eaves is right in that this is a good defensive team, evidenced by their team goals against of 2.33 that yields an impressive per-game goal differential of 1.67.
The offensive output is notable compared to any recent UW teams. Last year, Wisconsin averaged 3.27 goals per game and just missed the NCAAs. Two years ago, a sub-.500 Badger team nearly made the Frozen Four despite scoring only 2.85 goals a game. In 2006-2007, Wisconsin averaged an embarrassing 2.27 goals per night. The 2005-2006 championship team scored 3.35 goals per game, and had a solid goal differential of 1.53 goals per game (Brian Elliott manned the pipes this season, and he was a serious Hobey candidate for a reason).
For a Bulldog team that appeared a tad leaky on defense last weekend against Bemidji State, this is no small task. A tough team in their own zone now features some serious pop up front. The Bulldogs better be ready.
That means plenty of backchecking, something the forwards actually did pretty well against Bemidji. More than that, UMD has to be stronger against forecheck pressure. Against recent opponents like North Dakota, Denver, and Bemidji State, UMD has had problems clearing their own zone, and it's burned them in many cases.
Getting Wade Bergman back will help. So will the eventual return of junior forward Kyle Schmidt, who can use his speed to stretch teams out defensively, but we're not yet sure if he'll play this weekend. Pretty confident Bergman (upper body) will play, and that's huge for UMD's defense.
The Bulldogs not only have to deal with a tough defense with Wisconsin, but now they also have to slow the Badgers down in transition. They have speed up front, keyed by senior Michael Davies and sophomore Derek Stepan, who has come into his own as a playmaker and had a huge World Juniors tournament in leading Team USA to gold. Senior Blake Geoffrion leads the team with 17 goals and is always a threat in front of the net.
UMD's players met on Monday, and I sensed a confident group when I visited on Wednesday. While confidence alone won't beat Wisconsin, it's clear that UMD is determined to continue the positive trends they've had going for some time.
They have responded well to adversity. When they've had a bad night, they respond with a much better effort. More importantly, they have strong on-ice leadership and refuse to fold the tent.
Saturday's loss was a gut-wrencher for this team, but they won't let it get to them. Expect a motivated and prepared Bulldog team Friday night. Two of the top teams in the country playing in the sardine can that is the DECC's rink should produce some great up-and-down hockey. Series like this are why NHL scouts love visiting the DECC. Everything happens faster on the ice because there isn't as much real estate. It's a nice way to see how prepared guys are for the next level.
Methinks we'll see a lot of scouts on hand this weekend.
If you haven't gotten tickets, do it before you're too late.
NOTE: You're all invited to join us at Grandma's Sports Garden for the UMD luncheon Friday at Noon. Good food, as always, and a preview of the weekend series with coach Scott Sandelin appearing on The Fan 1490.