McLeod Blog: An inside look at Gophers-Badgers series

The Matchup: No. 7 Minnesota (9-6-1, 3-4-1 Big Ten) vs. No. 14 Wisconsin (9-6-2, 3-2-1 Big Ten), 3M Arena at Mariucci, Friday/Saturday nights, 7 p.m., FOX Sports North PLUS.

Recent history: Don Lucia wanted his alma mater, Notre Dame, in the Big Ten. The Fighting Irish are in now and this is the early result: another road whitewash for Minnesota. After 1-0 and 5-2 losses last weekend, Minnesota is winless in its last five road outings (0-4-1). At least, unlike the Michigan trip two weeks ago, it wasn’t a matter of the Gophers squandering leads: they never had one.

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This takes nothing away from Notre Dame. The Irish are very good, with skill at all positions, and while some fans still wail about the Big Ten, Lucia was right in urging the league to take the Irish – an old WCHA foe –  into the fold.

Wisconsin split a home series against unranked Mercyhurst last weekend, squandering a 2-1 third-period lead Saturday to lose 3-2 and scoring four of the last five goals on Sunday to win, 4-2.

Key Stats: In the 3-2-1 column, we find the Gophers peppering Notre Dame’s Cale Morris, the Big Ten’s hottest goaltender, with 86 shots on goal last weekend in South Bend. Result: three goals total for the weekend, two losses, one more busted road trip. This isn’t looking good.

The Badgers, after an uneven home split against Mercyhurst, are pondering their power play. Against run-of-the-mill penalty kill teams, it’s thriving: 32,4 percent. But when facing the nation’s top-ranked PK units (Ohio State – No. 1, North Dakota – No. 7, Northern Michigan – No. 17 and Boston College – No. 21) it’s been a dismal 12.5 percent.

These will be Wisconsin’s seventh and eighth road games. Bucky is 4-2-0 away from the Kohl Center with the Gophers and Notre Dame still to tackle before the holiday break.

Players to Watch: Mike Szmatula is heating up for Minnesota. Despite the two losses, the senior forward recorded his first multi-goal game and doubled his season scoring Saturday night. Both goals came on the power play, which continues to claw its way to better numbers. Szmatula’s next goal or assist will be his 100th career point, making him the 83rd member of UM’s 100-point club.

Freshman defenseman Tyler Nanne can fly and he can also shoot. After sitting out a season due to NCAA eligibility rules, the Ohio State transfer has picked up his game considerably. It’s fun to watch him rocket around and he’s back home after his first career multi-point game, a two-assist night at South Bend on Saturday.

Wisconsin’s Seamus Malone is the Big Ten’s Third Star of the Week following his second career three-point game Sunday.

Off in the weeds somewhere, sophomore Trent Frederic is lurking. A first-round draft pick of the Bruins in 2016, Frederic roared out of the gate with five goals in his first eight games. Lately, though, opposing defenses have made him anything but lonely. Frederic has scored only one goal in the last nine games – a stretch during which the Badgers are 3-4-2. Coincidence? I think not.

It’s a curious situation in goal down in Madison but it’s working well. Kyle Hayton tore it up during a successful career at St. Lawrence. He finished his eligibility there as the ECAC Goaltender of the Year last season. But Hayton still had some NCAA playing eligibility left so he transferred to Wisconsin, where he’s the only graduate goaltender in the league. Maybe in the country. Hayton has started 14 of 15 and comes into Mariucci with 2.65/.900 numbers.

Badger watchers are saying that the biggest improvement over last year, head coach Tony Granato’s first at the helm, might be behind the Wisconsin blue line. With four NHL-drafted defensemen – Tyler Inamoto (Florida), Josh Ess (Chicago), Wyatt Kalynuk (Philadelphia) and J.D. Greenway (Toronto) – plus Hayton in the twine.

Why These Games Matter: Minnesota scheduled all these ranked opponents early in the season to make a quality-of-schedule statement. So far, the value of doing that can often be seen on the ice but not always on the scoreboard, especially with those disappointing road results. Home wins, then, are even more critical than usual.

At Wisconsin, every win is more vindication for the hiring of former Badger star Granato as head coach. The highly respected bench boss last season took over a program that had managed only a dozen wins in its previous 70 games.

Keys for the Gophers:

  • Remember that no good lead goes unpunished. Being ahead in the third period guarantees nothing, so build on every lead and keep up the pressure;
  • Honor the Border Battle. These will be the 285th and 286th meetings between these two rabid foes. It shouldn’t need to be said but every player who ever donned Maroon and Gold will be watching these games and expecting a flat-out effort.
  • Finish those chances. No number of Grade A scoring chances matters if some of them don’t go in. The offense-minded Big Ten is only going to create more top-notch goalies, so winning teams will be the ones that don’t just put shots on the net but gobble up rebounds and bury them.

Broadcasts: Ben Clymer, Krissy Wendell and I will call both games on Fox Sports North Plus and Fox Sports Wisconsin (FSW Plus on Saturday). Air times: Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m.

DOUG McLEOD is the five-time Emmy Award-winning play-by-play announcer for Fox Sports and a longtime voice of Division I and NHL hockey. This is his 21st season calling Golden Gopher hockey games.