After a long layoff the Badgers Hockey program returns to the Kohl Center ice this weekend for a non-conference series against RIT. The puck drops at 7pm CT on Friday and can be seen on BTN. Saturday's action is scheduled for the same start time and can be seen live via TVW (Charter Extra 87 statewide).
These two teams have a brief but meaningful history, having played only once before this weekend. That was the 2010 Frozen Four Semifinal in which Wisconsin put RIT to the woodshed in an 8-1 victory on their way to the National Title.
RIT comes into this weekend a bit fresher in terms of game action having just faced previously ranked Ferris State and Lake Superior State in tournament play last weekend. They come into this series confident as they took both opponents down, winning 3-0 over Ferris State and then 3-1 over Lake Superior State.
Wisconsin on the other hand only has an exhibition game against the US U-18 National Team, a 4-3 victory, under their belt since their last series, nearly 3 weeks ago. Thankfully that rest period came, as the Badgers are nearly back to full strength as they welcome back defender Jake McCabe (did play a bit in last series) and forward Derek Lee, who should help spark the attack since going down early in the season.
The Badgers do need to be on the lookout though as clearly RIT is a team that's capable of playing and beating anyone in the country and are certainly a step up in non-conference quality from Mercyhurst, also a member of the Atlantic Hockey Association.
Currently the Tigers sit tied for 2nd in the conference with 16 points and have a 10-6-2 overall record to go with their 7-4-2 AHA mark. Wisconsin comes in 10th in the WCHA with just 10 points. Overall they sit at 7-9-2 with a 4-8-2 record in WCHA play.
As for the games at hand this weekend one thing that's clear and not so easy to do at the same time is that Wisconsin needs to get off to a fast start against the Tigers. The Badgers haven't won or even tied a game all season in which they've given up the first goal of the game, so scoring 1st and early is important for a Badgers victory.
That task isn't exactly easy against a Tigers D that ranks 9th nationally, only allowing opponents to score 2.2 goals a game.
Having Lee back to team up with the likes of Mark Zengerle and Tyler Barnes will be a huge boost. It's not known yet if Lee will be on the 1st team line right away but we could see it happen a bit this weekend.
They'll be going up against one of the stronger netminders in the country in the Tigers' Shane Madolora who's got a 2.00gaa and a .930 save percentage.
If Wisconsin is going to win this weekend they need to take advantage of an average at best penalty kill for RIT. They currently sit 23rd nationally at 83.6%, while Wisconsin's power play is hitting on 21.7% of their chances, good for 13th nationally. It also bodes well for the Badgers that RIT gives up a lot of penalty minutes (15.15), good for 14th nationally.
There to help pounce on those opportunities should be the scoring machines that are forward Mark Zengerle and defenseman Justin Schultz. Each are on the cusp of records, with Zengerle the owner of the 2nd longest points streak in Badgers history, currently at 17 games. He needs to get to 21 to tie the man behind the bench tonight, Mike Eaves.
Schultz on the other hand is getting a lot more attention and rightfully so. He leads all defenseman nationally with 9 goals and 28 points so far this season. He's only 3 points away from eclipsing the 100 point mark for his career, something a Badgers defenseman hasn't done since Brian Rafalski (1994-95). 6 points puts him in the Top 10 of defenders all-time at Wisconsin as well. Finally, let's not forget that he's a front runner for the Hobey Baker Award this season as well.
On the defensive side of things Wisconsin needs to stay tight and hold RIT leading scorer Mike Colavecchia (6 goals and 15 points) in check. As a team the Tigers don't score a ton, only averaging 2.4 goals a game and that may be just what the Badgers defense needs to gain some more confidence, especially with the return of McCabe to full-time action this weekend.
The biggest question mark going into this game is can captain and defenseman John Ramage pick up his level of play. Sure, he's been unlucky to have a few pucks bounce off of him for virtual own goals, but at the same time he's also the owner of the Badgers worst +/- mark at -11 and that's just not good enough for someone that's supposed to be a captain of this team.
I'm guessing that the break may have been just what he needed to clear his head. However this team may need to knock off a bit of rust and that's why I'm calling for a split this weekend with the Badgers giving Head Coach Mike Eaves his 200th victory on the Wisconsin bench.