Hockey Series Preview: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Wisconsin travels to Minnesota this weekend for a rivalry series vs the Golden Gophers.

Alright, already the show goes on
all night, till the morning we dream so long
anybody ever wonder, when they would see the sun up
just remember when you come up
the show goes on

Lupe Fiasco--The Show Goes On

It's been a tough couple of months for the Badger men's hockey team. It started with the egregious ten game suspension levied to freshman winger Nic Kerdiles before the season even started. It escalated with injuries to talented forwards Derek Lee (scooter accident), and Mark Zengerle (broken finger). It culminated with the resignation of assistant coach Bill Butters last week.

To make matters worse, the Badgers' are off to a 1-4-1 start to the season.

Things are tough right now, but great teams are made from battling through adversity. For UW, there's no time like the present.

Wisconsin heads into this weekend with a giant chip on their shoulder. They're traveling to play their top rival, the Minnesota Golden Gophers, and there aren't many media outlets giving them a chance. The Gophers have dropped a game or two this season themselves, but were the pre-season WCHA favorites, and are presently ranked third in the country.

Wisconsin assistant coach Gary Shuchuk has taken on a bigger role with the team after the departure of Butters, and was quite animated on 'The Badger Hockey Hour' with the radio voice of the Badgers Brian Posick earlier this week.

"We told the boys listen, the rest of the world doesn't care what's going on with us," Shuchuk said. "They don't care if Bill Butters left, they don't care if Nic Kerdiles got suspended, they don't care that Mark Zengerle broke the finger. They're actually laughing at us."

"The only guys that we have to worry about are the 26 guys in the locker room and the coaching staff. That's all we have to trust. We trust each other, you trust the guy to your left, the guy to your right, we'll be fine."

BADGER OFFENSE

So far this season Wisconsin's offense has been offensive. They've recorded just 11 goals in six games, a putrid 1.83 goals per game average. If Wisconsin wants to earn points this weekend, they've got to considerably turn things around on the offensive end.

Of course, that's going to be tough without their best player. Wisconsin will be without the services of leading scorer Mark Zengerle this weekend, as he recovers from a broken index finger on his left hand that was suffered in UW's series vs Colorado College.

Wisconsin has implemented a new forecheck this season, as I detailed the other day here on the blog. It's an aggressive forecheck, but it only works if everyone on the ice buys into the system. When it's working well, it works REALLY well. Unfortunately the Badgers' haven't been able to sustain it for three periods in a row the entire season.

Without Zengerle, I expect guys like Tyler Barnes and Michael Mersch to play larger roles this weekend. Barnes is a local kid and a Gopher killer. In four career games at Mariucci, Barnes has recorded three goals. Expect to see his name on the score sheet this weekend.

Look for freshman Morgan Zulinick to have an expanded role this weekend as well. The Kamloops, B.C native is one of the most gifted offensive players on the roster, and Wisconsin will need him to provide scoring in Zengerle's absence.

BADGER DEFENSE & GOALIES

Surprisingly, this is has been one of the areas of concern early in the season at times for Wisconsin. UW is still trying to find the right combination of players back there, and it appears that junior Chase Drake will see his first action since the opening weekend vs Northern Michigan.

One of the pleasant surprises has been the play of senior captain John Ramage. The St. Louis native had a tough junior campaign, but has bounced back nicely this season. Ramage is a leader on this club, and his steady presence this weekend will go a long ways in helping Wisconsin secure some much needed road points.

In goal Joel Rumpel has taken the ball and ran with it for the most part. Landon Peterson has started just one game this season, Saturday night vs Northern Michigan. That said, Andy Baggot reported earlier in the week that Peterson has been pushing Rumpel in practice recently and could earn the nod this weekend.

No goaltender has been announced to this point, but it wouldn't be entirely shocking to see both Wisconsin net-minders this weekend at Mariucci.

GOPHER OFFENSE

Stop me if you've heard this before, the Gophers are talented and deep up front. Stop? Yeah, that's what I thought. Once again the Gophers have a skilled bunch up front, and Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves is well aware.

"They probably have the most depth at forward in our league in terms of ability and talent," Eaves said during his weekly press conference Monday.

Minnesota is led up front by a pair of talented centermen. Big Nick Bjugstad was the WCHA's pre-season player of the year, and was widely billed as one of the favorites for the Hobey Baker award handed out annually to the top player in college hockey.

While Bjugstad has been good this season, the Gophers have been led offensively by classmate Erik Haula. The Finnish forward leads the team in scoring with five goals and six assists in nine games.

Don't forget about the sneaky Kyle Rau either. The sophomore winger burst onto the college hockey scene with a huge year as a freshman, and is back up to his old tricks once again this season.

I'd also expect a big weekend out of Nate Condon. The Wausau native is just the third player from the state of Wisconsin to suit up for the Gophers, and I'm sure he'll be fired up to face the Badgers this weekend.

GOPHER DEFENSE & GOALIES

One of the biggest reasons why people were projecting the Gophers to be so good this season was because of the talent they returned on defense. Minnesota didn't lose a player from their D-corps over the offseason, but added a pair of talented freshmen in Brady Skjei and Mike Reilly.

So far this season, however, the Gophers haven't lived up to expectations on the defensive side of the puck. Turnovers and sloppy play have cost them in losses to Minnesota State and Michigan Tech. The talent is still there, so we'll have to see if they can put things together this weekend against the Badgers.

In goal Minnesota was forced to replace departing senior Kent Patterson, and it looks like they haven't missed a beat. Incoming freshman Adam Wilcox has been solid between the pipes for Minnesota, and will start both games for the Gophers this weekend.

THREE KEY'S TO SUCCESS VS MINNESOTA

  1. Dictate tempo. The Gophers like to get up and down the ice, which is fine, but the Badgers need to be the aggressors. Wisconsin has been best this season when they've been aggressive offensively, as it opens the game up for them on both ends of the rink.
  2. Continue to get shots from anywhere and everywhere. So far the Badgers have seen their shot totals increase in every series. If Wisconsin is going to find offense sans Zengerle, they're going to need to fire as much rubber at Wilcox as is physically possible.
  3. Play a good road game. You don't have to make the fancy plays, just make the right ones. Play strong in your own end, make the good pass, do the simple things well. If you do the simple things well, you can win on the road.

COVERAGE

Both games will be televised in Wisconsin this weekend. Friday's game will be on FS Wisconsin, while Saturday's contest will be on the Big Ten Network. Note that Saturday's game doesn't start until 8 PM though to accommodate TV.

As always the games can be found on the radio on the Badger Sports Network and WIBA 1310.

POLLS

Minnesota is ranked #3 in both the USCHO.com poll as well as the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll. Wisconsin is not ranked.

INJURIES

Wisconsin will be without the services of Mark Zengerle (broken finger) and Nic Kerdiles (suspension).

LAST MEETING

Wisconsin and Minnesota split at Mariucci, with the Badgers winning Friday night 4-1, and losing Saturday 2-1.

FUN FACT

Wisconsin is 5-2-1 at Minnesota in their last eight games.

QUOTABLE

"We're getting chances, but we have to score. I tell our guys, you want to be a goal scorer, you want the prom date? Score some goals, man. That's what we want to do, that's the idea of the game. Score some goals, get the prom date."-Badger assistant coach Gary Shuchuk

PREDICTION

On paper this should be an easy Minnesota sweep. The Gophers are more talented offensively, and defensively. Wisconsin has just lost their leading scorer and their assistant coach.

That said, the show goes on and these guys are pissed off. The Wisconsin guys have been sitting around for two weeks listening to reasons why they have no shot this weekend. I feel like they'll use that motivation this weekend and play much better than anyone expects them to.

I'll still say three points for Minnesota, but it's going to be a really hard fought series.

Friday: Minnesota 4, Wisconsin 2

Saturdady: Minnesota 3, Wisconsin 3

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For more Wisconsin hockey coverage, follow Andy on Twitter (@AndyJohnsonB5Q)

You can also reach Andy via e-mail (AndyJohnsonB5Q@gmail.com)

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