We're back once again with our weekly "View from the other side" series where we take a deeper look into the Badgers opposition by chatting with local media from around the country. This week Wisconsin is packing up the bus and hitting the road as they travel to Minnesota to take on the rival Golden Gophers.
Earlier this week I was able to chat with Gopher writer Nathan Wells of SB Nation Minnesota (@gopherstate). Nathan also does a great job covering college hockey for College Hockey News and Western College Hockey, and also covers the Minnesota Wild for First Round Bust.
Getting down to business, the Gophers took three points last weekend on the road at Alaska Anchorage. Minnesota was able to win the Friday night game, but had to settle for a 2-2 tie on Saturday. The Badgers were off last weekend, but were swept by Colorado College the previous weekend.
BUCKY'S 5TH QUARTER: Kent Patterson turned himself into one of the better goalies in recent memory for the Gophers. He's gone now, and freshman Adam Wilcox has stepped into the Gopher net. How has he looked so far in the role as Minnesota's #1 goaltender?
NATHAN WELLS: The team's biggest question mark entering the season was who would step up to become the #1 goaltender between junior Michael Shibrowski and Wilcox and it wasn't much of a battle. Both split time the first three weeks of the season before the freshman took over and made it clear that he was the top dog between the pipes. He's poised, athletic and plays a lot like his cousin, former Minnesota Duluth goalie Alex Stalock.
It's hard to replace Patterson, who had 7 shutouts and was a big part of Minnesota's first-half surge last season, and I wouldn't say that Minnesota has done it yet. However, Wilcox, who does have 2 shutouts, has played well for a freshman and exceeded expectations so far. Goaltending is not the biggest question mark for the Gophers right now.
B5Q: Nick Bjugstad turned down an offer to sign an NHL contract with the Florida Panthers to return for his junior season. He was projected by most as the WCHA pre-season player of the year, and was expected to be a Hobey Baker candidate. Just looking at numbers it looks like he's been good, not great. How do you assess his chances of living up to this seasons expectations going forward?
WELLS: It's going to be hard for Bjugstad to live up to the expectations this season if only because how high the bar is. Nick led the team with 25 goals last season and so far has 5 in 9. Those aren't bad numbers by any stretch of the imagination - in fact, he's been one of the better Minnesota players this season - but like you said he doesn't have Hobey Baker candidate numbers. Although anyone who is expecting Paul Kariya from 1993 is going to be disappointed with those numbers, if he continues at this pace he should be fine..
In the end, I think Bjugstad's season is going to be judged upon how Minnesota does as a team rather than his individual stat sheet.
B5Q: Minnesota was the consensus top team in the WCHA coming into the season, but they've dropped a few games to some mediocre programs. What's been the major issues for them so far early in the season?
WELLS: The biggest issue so far has been, to use the cliche, is that Minnesota hasn't put together a full weekend since sweeping Michigan State the first weekend of the season. There are been times where they've been dominant when either the power play or even strength has been unstoppable but the Gophers haven't had both going at the same time. There have been a couple players from last year's team who have struggled and head coach Don Lucia has juggled his forward lines (which because of injuries and returning defenders have normally featured at least 1 D up front) more than he did last year.
It's the same thing on defense. Minnesota has had two shutouts, two games giving up 1 goal and held teams to under 15 shots on multiple occasions yet have also given up 5 goals to both Michigan Tech and Minnesota State; two teams that have not won a WCHA game against anyone else.
For the most part, this looks like a team that has talent (they've been out-shot only once) but haven't put things together. It remains to be seen whether or not the points lost early on will cost the Gophers later.
B5Q: Minnesota wins this weekend if:
WELLS: ...they can score first twice. They were able to come back last year at Mariucci down 1-0 but for the most part it's been difficult for the Gophers to come back against a tough Wisconsin defense. They need to be able press their game and it's harder to do it behind a goal or two.
B5Q: On paper this is a Minnesota sweep, what's your prediction Mr. Wells?
WELLS: Maybe it's just me but I don't know if you ever can say that a series between Minnesota and Wisconsin should be a sweep one way or another on paper. Both teams consider this to be one their major rivalries and make it tough regardless of where they are in the standings.
I think there are ways Minnesota can sweep this weekend. The Gophers have been good at home (4-0) so far this season and (on paper) have more weapons. However, there's something about Wisconsin having the week off, the rivalry itself and Minnesota traveling back from Alaska that is keeping me from predicting a sweep. So until they can prove themselves over an entire WCHA weekend series, I'm thinking split - Wisconsin Friday, Minnesota Saturday.
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