As the Badgers prepare to play in the Kohl Center for the last time this season, they also will be saying goodbye to nine team members.
No. 8 Wisconsin (8-5-1 Big Ten, 17-9-2 overall) will host Michigan State (3-5-6, 9-13-7) in their final home series, beginning Friday night. The following Saturday afternoon will be senior day, where the team will honor its nine senior players.
This weekend’s series marks the sixth consecutive conference matchup for the Badgers. And with the Big Ten tournament just three and a half weeks away, the final stretch of the season will prove crucial for the standings.
“There’s double pressure in conference games, because they count for both the national rankings and your conference,” senior forward Tyler Barnes said. “So they are definitely more important. I mean, I wouldn’t say we approach them differently than any other game, because you have to win them all.”
Barnes is among the seniors being honored Saturday afternoon. The Eagan, Minn. native returned to the ice after missing four games with a shoulder injury. The notion that his last game in Madison is approaching hasn’t yet begun to sink in.
“It probably won’t [sink in] until after the game,” Barnes said.
The Spartans are coming into the series off a tie and win at Penn State. Backed by strong goaltending, Michigan State’s defense could prove to be a challenge for the Badgers.
“This young man coming in this weekend, he is the backbone of their team,” head coach Mike Eaves said on Tuesday. “If we’re going to have any kind of success, we have to find ways to get pucks behind him in the net, to make his job difficult and we’ve got to get people in front of him and take a lot of shots.”
“We’ve had trouble sometimes solving the riddle of the goalie,” senior forward Mark Zengerle said. “Hopefully that’s not an issue this weekend.”
Zengerle is coming off a two-goal showing against Ohio State where he helped lift the team to a 4-2 victory. He is also currently tied for first in assists in the Big Ten.
As the season comes to a close, the team is steadily focused on the final outcome in their conference. Finishing in the top two spots would prove beneficial in the Big Ten tournament, set to take place in St. Paul, Minn. in March.
“We’ve set a certain standard and goal of where we want to be in the Big Ten as far as finishing in the top two there so we get the first game as a bye,” Zengerle said. “So in order to get that, you’ve got to win out and win a lot… so definitely big time we’re trying to get that goal of being in the top two.”
The Badgers currently sit seven points behind Minnesota for second place in the Big Ten, with Michigan and Ohio State just five points behind them.
“It’s playoff hockey now, with how close we’re all within a couple of points,” senior forward Jefferson Dahl said. “This is big-time hockey. We’ve got to bear down here our last weekend at home, and just continue to keep going.”
In addition to Barnes, Dahl and Zengerle, seniors Chase Drake, Joe Faust, Sean Little, Michael Mersch, Keegan Meuer and Frankie Simonelli will be recognized on Saturday afternoon.
Puck-drop against Michigan State begins at 8 p.m. Friday night.