Preview: Eyes on the Big Prize

Senior tri-captain Ben Street (Moebius/10)

Although the MacNaughton Cup is out of reach, No.3 Wisconsin has moved its focus to the bigger goal, something Ben Street knows to well. That's why the Badgers series at border-rival Minnesota won't have any indication of a final week let down.

MADISON - Pass around a picture in the Wisconsin locker room of the MacNaughton Cup and the looks could range from puzzled to bewildered. After all, the trophy awarded to the regular season champion in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association hasn't made a stop in Wisconsin since 2000.

Of course, look at the list of goals the Wisconsin men's hockey team penciled out at the beginning of the season and winning the cup lands midway up the mountain. Fifth-year senior Ben Street can testify to that. In 2006, his freshman season, the Badgers missed out on the cup, but hoisted the school's sixth national championship trophy a couple weeks after being eliminated from the race.

"It's been pretty elusive for us my whole career, but it's not the ultimate goal," Street said. "It's a championship you would love to have but if you had to pick one, the MacNaughton Cup wouldn't be it."

Not only is the big prize still on the table for No.3 Wisconsin, but plenty of other intermediate goals as it closes out the regular season this weekend. The Badgers have a two-point lead on third-place St. Cloud State and a four-point lead on Minnesota-Duluth. If the Badgers get only one-point this weekend, they'll clinch a top three spot in the conference, meaning they will avoid the dreaded play-in game should they advance to the Final Five in Minneapolis.

From there, the Badgers have the goals of winning the Broadmoor Trophy (tournament champions), earning a number-one seed in the 16-team NCAA Tournament and making it to Ford Field in Detroit for the national championship.

If one expects Wisconsin to have a letdown after being eliminated from the regular season race, take a glimpse at the goals and its next opponents, as the Badgers will travel to Minnesota to take on the hated Golden Gophers in a Friday-Sunday series.

"Since there isn't much league stuff to play for, you would worry about a let down but it's Minnesota at Minnesota," Street said. "There's still a lot to play for and you want to hit the playoffs in stride. It's one of those series that it really doesn't matter what you have done all year and the weeks leading up to it. Everyone gets up for that series. Both teams hate to loose to each other so bad."

While the Badgers (21-8-4, 16-7-3 WCHA, 35 points) have been consistent all year long, Minnesota (16-16-2, 11-13-2 WCHA, 24 points) has been an unpredictable headache for Head Coach Don Lucia. Ranked ninth to start the season, Minnesota is a long shot to make the tournament, but have won three of four games after losing five of six.

"I grew up watching the Gophers, but it's Wisconsin-Minnesota," said Faribault, Minn., native Jordy Murray, who also had a brother play for North Dakota. "I can't put it into words other than we hate each other. It's definitely physical, and you love take those home games away from them, especially our sweep there last year."

Although not winning the cup is in the past, the missed opportunities Wisconsin had plays a quiet role. While junior Brendan Smith acknowledged how good Denver (the number one team in the country) has played this season, he is quick to rattle off three poor performances that resulted in UW losses and missing out on needed points.

Even a loss in Mankato in late October still has some bite to it that fueling the fire.

"Points like that is really a struggle to look back on because you see it could have helped us win the MacNaughton," Smith said. "It feeds us. Once you get into the tournament, you can't lose, and we can't have those games."

Should the Badgers lose, it won't be because of their lack of depth. In last weekend's series sweep over Michigan Tech, a series played without WCHA leading scorer Blake Geoffrion, the Badgers got three goals from three players directly affected by Geoffrion's absence on Friday and won 5-2 on Saturday despite getting zero points from their top five scorers and nothing their five double-digit goal producers.

The depth is the biggest reason the Badgers have won at least 20 games for the 33rd time in school history and a chance to finish alone in second for the first time under Mike Eaves.

"The depth of our team is our strongest attribute," Smith said. "We just wear teams out and by the third period, teams can't stick with us. I love it, because I don't feel there's a liability with any line.

"The more we stay on this train and keep it moving at full throttle, it's going to keep us going and our spirits high."

No.3 Wisconsin (21-8-4) vs. Minnesota (16-16-2)

Date/Time - Friday and Sunday, March 5-7 at 7/1 p.m. CT

Arena – Friday - Target Center - 200' x 85' (15,547) Sunday - Mariucci Arena - 200' x 100' (10,000)

Television - Friday on Big Ten Network at 10 p.m. CT. Sunday on FSN

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

Series – Minnesota leads 151-83-18 (85-25-6 in Minneapolis)

Last Meeting - Wisconsin fell, 5-2, at the Kohl Center to Minnesota on Nov. 7 after the Badgers won a 4-2 series opener on Nov. 6.

Series Notes

The series is the most played rivalry in Wisconsin hockey history. Minnesota is the only WCHA opponent Wisconsin has a losing record against all-time.

Wisconsin needs three points to clinch second place on its own. Should the Badgers finish in second place by themselves, it will mark the highest WCHA finish in the Mike Eaves coaching era (since 2002). The Badgers tied for second in the WCHA during the 2005–06 season with a 17-8-3 mark and 37 points.

Wisconsin has its third three-game winning streak of the season, but has yet to win more than three consecutive games. The Badgers have six of the past seven contests. UW last won more than three consecutive games from Nov. 22-Dec. 27, 2008, when it captured six straight victories.

UW senior forward Blake Geoffrion leads the WCHA with 33 points in league games. If he holds on to the league scoring lead, he would be the first Badger to win the scoring title since Mark Johnson and Mike Eaves shared the title in 1977-78.

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