Wisconsin is making its first trip to the WCHA Final Five since 2010, and is doing so with much to play for. On top of playing for league honors, the Badgers are in the hunt for an at-large birth in the NCAA tournament which starts next week.
Sitting at No. 16 in the current PairWise rankings which mimic the formula used by the NCAA to pick the tournament field, the Badgers are far from a lock to earn a bid in the 16-team field. By all accounts, Wisconsin must win at minimum two games this weekend in St. Paul to give themselves a chance.
Fourth seeded Wisconsin advanced to the Final Five after sweeping ninth seeded Minnesota-Duluth last weekend in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
The Badgers understand the predicament they're in with how many games they must win this weekend, but head coach Mike Eaves noted this week they've got to focus on Thursday's contest and go from there.
"If you think about the whole enchilada, that's a big gorilla to eat, and you've got to start with the first bite," Eaves said. "So we'll start on Thursday."
Wisconsin opens up the tournament in the Thursday afternoon game vs Minnesota State. The sixth seeded Mavericks earned a birth in the Final Five after depositing seventh seeded Nebraska Omaha in three games last weekend.
Projected Wisconsin line chart:
Nic Kerdiles-Mark Zengerle-Tyler Barnes
Joseph LaBate-Brendan Woods-Michael Mersch
Ryan Little-Jefferson Dahl-Sean Little
Brad Navin-Keegan Meuer-Matt Paape
Chase Drake/Jake McCabe-Frankie Simonelli
Kevin Schulze-John Ramage
Eddie Wittchow-Joe Faust
Unlike Minnesota Sate who comes into the weekend rather healthy, the Badgers have a couple key injuries that they are facing. Senior center Derek Lee has been ruled out for the weekend with a knee injury. He was banged up in the Penn State game February 25th, and has yet to skate.
Wisconsin also faces the real possibility that they'll be without the services of All-WCHA third team defenseman Jake McCabe who suffered a lower-body injury Saturday night. McCabe has been seen walking around with a noticeable limp, but the Badgers are hopeful that he can go on Thursday.
McCabe injured his ankle in the North Dakota series February 2nd, and missed the following series vs Bemidji State. Since that time he's been gutting it out and playing well despite the pain. McCabe skated on his own, and will be a game time decision vs Minnesota State.
If McCabe is out, expect junior Chase Drake to be paired up with Frankie Simonelli. While not a big name, Drake has played in 18 games for the Badgers this season, so he's got plenty of experience. Drake also filled in on the power play while McCabe was injured previously this season, and while he was gone at the World Junior Championships.
With Derek Lee not available up front, Brendan Woods will get the nod between Michael Mersch and Joseph LaBate. All three players have size to go along with their skill, and have been one of Wisconsin's most productive units over the past three weeks.
Another notable player to keep an eye on for the Badgers is freshman Nic Kerdiles. The Irvine, Calif., native is making up for lost time, registering points in 14 of his last 16 games, including points in each of his last eight games. Over that eight game span, Kerdiles has racked up 12 points and is now third on the Badgers in scoring despite missing the first 10 games of the season.
If Wisconsin is to go on a run this weekend, it's going to have to start between the pipes with Joel Rumpel. The sophomore has been the back-bone of this team along with backup Landon Peterson, and Rumpel has the ability to carry Wisconsin all the way to the Broadmoor.
Overall, there aren't many teams playing as well as the Badgers right now. Since Kerdiles returned from his NCAA suspension, the Badgers are 18-5-5. Will they pull of the improbable and come back from their 1-7-2 start to earn an at-large birth in the NCAA tournament? I don't know. But it should be fun to watch them try this weekend.
If the Badgers are able to advance past Thursday, they'll lock horns with the WCHA's top seed, St. Cloud State. That game will take place Friday afternoon at 2 PM.
All games this weekend will be featured on Fox Sports North.
WCHA FINAL FIVE SCHEDULE
2:00 PM -- Wisconsin vs Minnesota State
7:00 PM -- Colorado College vs North Dakota
2:00 PM -- Wisconsin/Minnesota State winner vs St. Cloud State
7:00 PM -- Colorado College/North Dakota winner vs Minnesota
7:00 PM -- Semi-final winners
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