For the No. 1 UMD Bulldogs, road challenges don't get much bigger than this one.
One of the WCHA's tougher buildings to play in is on the docket for this weekend. To make things even more difficult for the visitors, they come in fresh off their first No. 1 national ranking in six years, they're in the lead in the WCHA standings, and they are facing a pissed-off team that just got swept at home by North Dakota.
So, no, this won't be easy for UMD.
Of course, saying all of that seems forgetful of the fact that the Badgers aren't exactly going to have an easy time dealing with UMD.
As we mentioned earlier this week, UMD's coaches and players aren't going to run from the fact that they are on top of the national polls that mean nothing (even though everyone talks about them). Instead, this is both an opportunity and a motivator for the Bulldogs. For starters, being No. 1 is an obvious tool for recruiting. People want to play for programs that get attention. UMD might not ring like a high-profile program, but the fact they are seen as good enough to be No. 1 in the country should help them along in this regard.
Why is it a motivator? Well, there are two reasons. One, no one wants to lose the top spot after one week. You want to make a habit of staying there for a while, and that's hard if you lose on the first weekend after you gain the spot. Secondly, there are always going to be a lot of people who believe the No. 1 team doesn't deserve to be in that spot. Nothing like going out and beating a ranked team twice on the road to prove yourself as worthy.
In the end, the No. 1 ranking is meant to be lost. We've already had four No. 1 teams in seven weeks of polls. UMD won't keep it forever, but hopefully they find a way to hold on to it for at least one more weekend.
The Badgers are young, but they have some serious talent. Mark Zengerle and Michael Mersch up front are having nice freshman seasons. They unquestionably miss the slew of great players they had on last year's NCAA runner-up team, but Mike Eaves reloaded quickly. It helps to have guys like Jake Gardiner and Justin Schultz on the blue line, and the goaltending of Scott Gudmandson and Brett Bennett has been rock-solid all season so far.
The Kohl Center is a hell of a tough place to play if you let the crowd get into it. The Badgers will come close to filling the building for both games, and it will be loud. It's up to UMD to find ways to take the crowd out of the game, so the home team can't feed off that energy. That means they need Fontaine and the Connollies to start with energy. Play tough. Play physical. They need someone to throw a hit. Make the effort plays early in the game. Get pucks deep and pressure the UW goal.
Don't take dumb penalties or lazy penalties. Don't give the Badgers power plays. Those are things that beg for trouble against a desperate home team.
Aaron Crandall should be motivated. He once had an offer to attend Wisconsin, but the Badgers yanked it as he struggled in juniors. He showed up as a third goalie for UMD last year, took a redshirt year by not playing, and has emerged as a viable starter. He might downplay it to your face, but it's hard to imagine he hasn't thought about it this week.
Everyone has to play well. So far, the Bulldogs have been good at getting contributions all over the roster. They'll need more of the same this weekend.
It won't be easy, because you know Wisconsin will be desperate after last weekend.
But who said being No. 1 was easy?