JEFF SCHORFHEIDE/Herald photoThis weekend’s men’s hockey series between Wisconsin andMinnesota is a tale of two teams. The Badgers (14-12-6, 10-10-4 WCHA) continueto exhibit strong play down the late stretch of the season, having lost justtwice in their last 11 games. The Gophers (12-13-7, 6-11-5), on the other hand,have continued to slide in the rankings and have struggled to find a rhythm.They haven’t won in their last six games and have been victorious just once intheir last 10 tries.But this is WCHA hockey. Throw all that out the window.?You can never underestimate a Gopher team,? said UW forwardAaron Bendickson, a native of Thief River Falls, Minn. ?They’re going to cometo play, and we’re going to come to play no matter what.?The two rivals faced off once already this year, withWisconsin earning three points on the weekend. In Game 2 of the series, theBadgers fell down 2-0 after the first period but battled back as they have donemany times before to earn a tie and, more importantly, a point in thestandings.?Every point is crucial. The WCHA is so tight,? saiddefenseman Ryan McDonagh, another Minnesota native. ?Whether it’s working hardto come back and get a tie and scramble for a point or obviously win, we justwant to get as many points as possible at this point.?Indeed, every point counts from this point on for Wisconsin,as they sit deadlocked with Minnesota State at fourth in the WCHA. The Badgersfaced the Mavericks last weekend at home but were unable to create separationin the standings, making the team’s last two series ? road trips to Minnesotaand St. Cloud State ? that much more important. ?Any time you go into a rivalry game like this, the teamwho’s going to outwork each other is going to win the series,? Wisconsingoaltender Shane Connelly said. ?We beat [Minnesota] up a little bit here, sothey’re going to come out ready to charge us out of their building. The mainthing is we need to outwork them as hard as we can every shift, every play ofthe game.?If Wisconsin can remain in the top five teams in theconference standings, it will earn the right to host the first round of theWCHA playoffs at the Kohl Center. In the grander scheme of things, however,NCAA playoff implications are also on the line. The top 16 teams make it to thepostseason tournament; the Badgers are currently 12th in the Pairwise Rankings.?We’re fighting for home ice and fighting for the NCAAtournament,? Bendickson said. ?It’s the biggest time of the season. We want tobe playing the best hockey right now.?Minnesota has seen its share of lows this season; injurieshave plagued the Gophers ? namely the loss of junior forward Ryan Stoa for theseason ? and the NHL took away perhaps their best player when Kyle Okposo left schoolearly to go pro.The Gophers’ biggest playmaker since the departure of Okposothis season has been Blake Wheeler, a junior forward who has 13 goals and 13assists on the year. Wheeler scored the team’s only goal in Minnesota’s 3-1 lossin the first game of the series against Wisconsin.?They’ve struggled a little bit this year, but they’re goingto make plays,? Connelly said. ?Their ice is huge; they’ve got a lot of spaceout there. So I expect them to make a lot of plays (and) get a lot of pucks atnet.??They play hard. They know their systems. They givethemselves a chance to be successful because of the way they do play hard,? UWhead coach Mike Eaves said. ?Right now, they’re missing a little magic, and Ithink every team in our league would like to say they could go out and find alittle bit more magic.?Instead of looking over its shoulder, all Wisconsin can donow is play its own game. It controls its own destiny from here on out andcan’t be worrying about what the rest of the WCHA is doing down the stretch.?Right now we know we just have to do our part to win, andthat’s all we can really control,? Bendickson said. ?And that’s just coming outand winning the last four games of the season.?