Gophers at Wisconsin preview
A run for first place in the WCHA, primarily. That's where the Gophers have set their sights with eight games remaining in the regular season. Eight is a key number, too, since several other teams have only six conference games left. Minnesota can gain a lot of ground on a night-by-night basis – if the Gophers win. Every remaining game is against a team that's lower in the standings but, as we've learned many times, that doesn't guarantee a thing. Except, of course, that those opponents will bring their "A" games every night.
Also, of course, there's pride. Minnesota took three of four points from Wisconsin when the teams met in Minneapolis in mid-November (via a 2-2 tie, and a 3-1 win).
Unique weekend: After the Gophers play Wisconsin in Madison Friday night, the Border Battle moves to Chicago for an outdoor tilt at Soldier Field Sunday afternoon. Wish we could bring you that one but our colleagues at Big Ten Network will have the game. Playing outdoors brings its own challenges (just ask the teams that participated in Hockey Day Minnesota in Grand Rapids last month) but the bottom line for Minnesota will be to capitalize on a struggling Wisconsin offense and post a win.
Both teams will wear retro-looking jerseys. In the photo above (courtesy the University of Wisconsin and the University of Minnesota), captains John Ramage and Zach Budish show off the special togs.
What's ailing Bucky?: Lack of offense, mostly, coupled with key injuries. Wisconsin has scored only 63 goals this season, just 49 in WCHA games. Only cellar-dwelling Bemidji State and Alaska-Anchorage have posted fewer. Compare the Badgers' scoring with Minnesota's NCAA-leading 105 goals. What Wisconsin has going for it is scoring defense. It's allowed only 57 goals overall, fewer than any team in the league except the Gophers who have been scored on only 54 times.
A major concern in Madison is the power play. Head Coach Mike Eaves this week referred to it as "anemic" and he's not kidding: 9 of 86 for a 10.5 percent conversion rate. Since power play efficiency is a major factor in playoff success, there's real worry that the Badgers' playoff hopes may be sunk by their man-advantage units. For that reason, Eaves paid particular attention to special teams in practice this week.
It isn't that the players on Wisconsin's top power play unit are inept. They've been injured and have all played together in only about half the games this season. Sophomore defenseman Jack McCabe just returned to practice this week after being out with an ankle injury. Senior center Derek Lee, who plays point on the power play, is coming off a concussion. Junior forwards Mark Zengerle, Michael Mersch and Tyler Barnes complete the "A" power play unit.
Most telling stat of all: Wisconsin has failed to score on the power play in 20 of its 28 games. As of now, the power play is on track to become the worst in team history.
How much of a tipping point would a dependable power play provide? The Wisconsin State Journal's Andy Baggott observes that in WCHA games ending in a tie, the Badger power play is 2 for 22. Meaning a nine percent conversion. Meaning only a man-advantage goal here and there could have made the difference between Wisconsin struggling to be a first-division competitor and being a real contender.
The scoring dilemma must be especially galling to Eaves, who was the most prolific scorer in Badgers hockey history in the 1980s.
Still a top rivalry?: Gophers fans love to hash over whether the longtime rivalries with Wisconsin or North Dakota – and to an extent, Minnesota-Duluth – are the most compelling. Many fans will point to the series against the Badgers, which began in 1922, as the richest in tradition. Indeed, Friday's game in Madison will be the 262nd all-time meeting between the two schools (the Gophers lead, 155-86-20). Their departure for the new Big Ten hockey conference next season assures that the rivalry will continue.
I'm on record as picking North Dakota as the number one rivalry. It certainly is in mutual vitriol. Take your pick.
Scouting the Badgers: Last weekend was thought-provoking for Badgers fans hoping for a strong finish and a good playoff run. On Friday, Wisconsin wound up with a tie against Bemidji State (which has won only four WCHA games all season) followed by a narrow win that had Eaves criticizing his team's defensive effort.
Eaves colorfully described the Badgers' escape with a 3-2 win after blowing a 3-0 lead in the Saturday game at Madison as "Landing a wounded plane … the fuselage was on fire and we got it on the tarmac."
That victory snapped a three-game winless streak (0-1-2) and marked only the second time the Badgers had scored at least three goals since early January.
This is a far cry from the month-long span between November 30 and January 18 when Wisconsin ripped off an 11-game unbeaten streak (8-0-3) including a seven-game winning jag. Since the steak ended, the Badgers have won three times.
Mersch, Lee and Zengerle are Wisconsin's top three scorers. The numbers fall off after that. The Badgers have eight NHL draft picks, including Mersch (Los Angeles Kings).
Sophomore goalies Joel Rumple and Landon Peterson have split duties, Rumpel (6-6-4, 1.85) with 16 starts, Peterson (6-3-3, 1.94) with 13.
Join Kevin Gorg, Tori Holt and me in Madison Friday night at 7 p.m. for Round Three of the Border Battle on Fox Sports North. "Gophers Live" with Anthony LaPanta and Ben Clymer begins at 6:30 p.m.