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Wisconsin Holds Final Practice Before NCAAs

Wisconsin Hockey practice Thursday Wisconsin Hockey practice Thursday
Wisconsin Hockey Coach Dave Eaves Wisconsin Hockey Coach Dave Eaves

Manchester, NH (WQOW) -- Six times, the Wisconsin men's hockey team has won an NCAA title. On Friday, the journey for number seven begins. The Badgers face top-seeded UMass-Lowell Friday in Manchester, New Hampshire to open up the 2013 NCAA tournament.

Wisconsin and UMass-Lowell are two of the hottest teams in the country. Since November 30th, the Badgers are 21-5-and-5, the River Hawks are 22-5-and-1. These are also two of the best defensive teams in the country. UML allows just  2.08 goals per game -- Wisconsin, just 2.02. A big reason for the Badgers stout numbers is the play of goalie Joel Rumpel. The sophomore goaltender has started Wisconsin's last nine games, and in that stretch, is 8-and-1, with a 1.90 goals against average.

"It's pretty crucial for a goaltender to have a short memory and I think over the course of the season, he'll talk about some goals he wishes he could take back. But he'll come back the next night and completely forget about them and he's often times the best player on the ice. So I think that just shows his character," says sophomore defenseman Jake McCabe.

The River Hawks have a big-time goalie in freshman Connor Hellebuyck. He leads the nation in save percentage at 94.9% and is second in goals allowed at 1.39 per game.

"In watching video the first thing that jumps out is the size of their goaltender, 6-4, 200 pound freshman that covers a lot of net," says head coach Mike Eaves. "If you look at his numbers, they are outstanding and I think you go from there. They don't give you a lot in front of the net, so that's another reason why the goaltender's numbers are so good. And they work their fannies off. Any time you work hard together as a group and you have good goaltending, you give yourself a chance to play. So we're going to have to play very well."

Countering Hellebuyck will be a Wisconsin offense that has been hot of late. The Badgers have scored 43 goals in its last 11 games.

"I think puck luck is part of it, I think have the line of Kerdiles, Barnes, and Zengerle find their stride, thought they could be a real good line," adds Eaves. "We broke them up, put them back together, and they're on that flow of offense right now, they're at the peak of their offensive play, we've got to ride that as long as we can, hopefully it'll take us to the end of the spring, here."

UMass-Lowell comes into the NCAA Tournament on a 5-game win streak, the River Hawks won the Hockey East regular season and tournament titles. Wisconsin has won six straight, and took home the WCHA Tournament title last week.The Badgers are a confident team heading into the NCAAs, mainly because they've been in must-win mode for months.

"That start kind of shocked us at the beginning," adds senior captain John Ramage. "There were tough times, but we've been coming out stronger and faced them early on. I think that helped us finish strong. We knew we would play for our lives and that's what we did."

McCabe adds: "I understand the playoff atmosphere and the must win games when it comes to crunch time.  I think a lot of guys understand.  Ryan and John both experienced it in 2010 when they went to the Frozen Four and we have a couple other guys that have played in a world stage as well, so I think we have a good group of guys here that have had experience and know what it takes for success."

If there is an X-factor for the Badgers, it's the third line with Jefferson Dahl centering Sean and Ryan Little. It's a group that bring a lot of energy to the ice.

"I think the first two games at the Final Five we were average, we did some things we would've like to have done differently but I think that last game we really turned it up a notch and that was probably our best game of the series," says Ryan Little.

Adds junior forward Jefferson Dahl: "I think this is the best we've played all year offensively and defensively. We just continue to work hard and we're starting to get breaks and finding the net a little more."

There's one Wisconsin native on the UMass-Lowell roster. Sophomore defenseman Jake Suter has a number of ties to the Badgers program. His father, uncle and cousin are all former Badgers.

"It was kind of luck of the draw," says Suter. "At the selection show I saw that is who we were paired up with, so I'm excited for the game tomorrow. It's just another game for us, so I try not to think too much about it. It's obviously exciting playing them, I know a bunch of guys on the team., so it'll be cool playing against them, but it's just another game for us."

The Badgers and River Hawks drop the puck at 3:30 p.m. Friday from Verizon Wireless Arena.

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