Big game for the "big boys:" Wisconsin hosts North Dakota in top-10 matchup

This is Wisconsin's most anticipated series this season. Wisconsin's last matchup against a top-20 opponent at home was against Ohio State, which saw the Badgers win the first game and lose the second.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

For the first time since 2010, the Kohl Center will be hosting a top-ten men’s hockey matchup. The No. 7 Wisconsin Badgers, for the first time in three years, have cracked the top-10 of the USCHO poll after a couple of seasons rebuilding a largely storied program. Despite the dominance of the Wisconsin program, No. 4 North Dakota (5-2-1) has been arguably even more historic, developing players like Chicago Blackhawk Jonathan Toews. With probably the most anticipated game in recent memory coming to the Kohl Center, UW is feeling a great deal of mixed emotions regarding the elite matchup.

Since before the season started, Wisconsin (1-1 Big Ten, 6-3 overall) has developed the narrative that it has a legitimate shot at winning a national title. And for its players, that means taking each game one at a time and having uniform preparation no matter the opponent.

“We’re going to try to treat it like any other week,” junior forward Matt Ustaski said. “We’re going to practice hard all week to prepare for it.”

Now that Wisconsin has established itself as a top team, or, as head coach Tony Ganato says, the "big boys," the team feels that no opponent is too big or too tough. Accordingly, each game, in some sense, elicits the same mentality.

“It’s definitely a different feeling [now that we’re a top team] because now we look at it as just another game,” senior forward Ryan Wagner said. “We’re not looking at them like ‘wow they’re the best team ever,’ because we think of ourselves as the best team ever. We just look at it is another game and we’re looking forward to it. We think we can beat any team that comes into our building.”

Still, even though the Badgers are trying to look at it as just another game, this weekend holds special significance. It is less widely recognized, but Wisconsin views this matchup as potentially its biggest rivalry.

“It’s definitely a big rivalry between us and North Dakota,” Ustaski said. “I kind of picture it like playing against Minnesota like those games it’s battling for every inch on the ice, you got to work for every opportunity and scoring chance so it’s definitely going to be a couple tight games and some entertaining hockey.”

Not only is this a big rivalry game, but UW understands the opportunity that this weekend presents. In order to win a national championship, Wisconsin will need to be able to compete and beat teams like the Fighting Hawks.

“I wouldn’t say there’s extra pressure, but I think it’s pressure that we want,” Ustaski said. “These are the teams we are going to be playing the tournament when we make it there and they are coming to our rink and our house and we’re going to have to prepare for that. They’re a top team and we’re a top team so we’re going to have to go head to head here and see how it goes.”

But above all else, athletes dream of playing in the biggest games under the lights — under the spotlight. And for that reason, despite trying to treat this as any other game, Wisconsin understands this storied matchup, and it is genuinely excited for a chance to beat an elite opponent.

“It’s definitely a different feel. Even for the fans. I mean, these two games this weekend are going to be closed to sold out. So it means a lot to them, the history behind it. So it’s just going to be a fun, physical game and I’m looking forward to it,” Wagner said.

“When I was picking schools before coming here this was one of the main reasons. You watch those games on TV, Wisconsin-Minnesota, Wisconsin-North Dakota, you see the rivalry and the college atmosphere — it’s unbelievable. Definitely one of the reasons I came to Wisconsin was to play in big games like these,” Ustaski added. “I’m excited and I know all the boys are excited to get a couple wins here.”

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