Hockey Series Preview: Minnesota

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Look, if you had one shot,
or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted
in one moment
Would you capture it
or just let it slip?

Eminem--Lose Yourself

The Wisconsin men's hockey team is back in action this weekend for their last regular season series of the year. This weekend the Badgers travel up 94 West to Minneapolis to take on their top rivals, the Golden Gophers from the University of Minnesota.

The Badgers are playing their best hockey of the season coming off a road sweep in Bemidji, and are riding a three game winning streak that they hope carries over against the league leading Gophers.

Minnesota is playing pretty well themselves. After sweeping Bemidji at home two weekends ago, the Gophers continued their winning ways last weekend sweeping Nebraska-Omaha. With two points this weekend, Minnesota can clinch a share of the MacNaughton Cup, awarded annually to the WCHA regular season champions.

While playing spoiler and keeping the cup away from your top rival is always added motivation, Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves is more concerned about making sure his team keeps playing Badger hockey heading into the post season.

"We have to continue to play well and keep rolling in order for us to have a chance to play as long as we can, get through the playoffs, get to the Final Five, and then see what happens," Eaves noted.

Last weekend the Badgers fell behind early in both contests but were able to rally to earn a rare road sweep. In fact, the sweep was the first on the road for the Badgers this season. It was also the first time Bemidji was swept at home at the Sanford Center this season.

The road wins in Bemidji were just the Badgers second and third wins away from Madison this season. Now that the team finally has some momentum, Eaves hopes the Badgers can make a little more noise this weekend at Mariucci.

"We're going to control what we can. And we're playing pretty well right now. We're going to go bang our drums and see what kind of noise we can make."

BADGER OFFENSE

One nice note from last weekend was the play from some players deeper in the lineup that you wouldn't normally expect offense from. Sophomore Sean Little scored the first goal of his Badger career on Saturday night, and freshman Brad Navin chipped in his third goal of the season as well.

"They (fourth line) played a lot more on Saturday and were contributing factors. It was nice to see that line jump in there and make a difference on back-to-back nights especially," Eaves said. "It gave our other guys a chance to maybe recover a little bit more and be rested when they went out there."

Eaves shook up the lines last weekend on a few different occasions, and will do the same for tonight's contest against the Gophers. Projected lines this weekend show junior Ryan Little up on the top line for the first time in his Badger career with Mark Zengerle and Tyler Barnes.

Junior Derek Lee will miss his eighth and ninth games in a row this weekend due to a concussion. His absence has created a hole up the middle that the coaching staff has been filling with a few different people at times.

This weekend Brendan Woods, who gains a longer leash seemingly every weekend from the coaching staff will have an opportunity to center the second unit. Woods has thrived under Eaves tutelage this season and will certainly have opportunities to create offense with Michael Mersch and Matt Paape on his wings.

BADGER DEFENSE & GOALTENDERS

The Badger blue-line continues to make strides in the right direction. Sophomore Frankie Simonelli was honored this week as the WCHA Co-Defensive player of the week after a big weekend in Bemidji. The Illinois native scored on Friday night and added two assists on Saturday in the weekend sweep.

Junior All-American Justin Schultz continues to play at a Hobey Baker level. Schultz registered goals in both games last weekend including the game winner on Saturday night. Schultz and Simonelli will be paired together as usual and will undoubtedly be matched up much of the night with Gopher superstar Nick Bjugstad.

Both Wisconsin goaltenders played well last weekend. Each played one game and both looked cool, calm, and collected. There were come questions as to how Joel Rumpel would rebound from the injury in the previous weekend that forced him to receive double digit stitches above his knee. Rumpel silences the skeptics on Saturday with a solid outing.

GOPHER OFFENSE

Minnesota is led up front by their hulking top line center Nick Bjugstad. The 6'5, 205 pound power forward leads the Gophers in goals (23), and points (38). Bjugstad is listed as questionable for this weekend after he suffered an undisclosed injury last weekend in Omaha. If he can't go, look for Nick Larson who is returning from injury this weekend to possibly sub in between Kyle Rau and Zach Budish on the top line for the Gophers.

The Gophers rank second nationally, scoring an average of 3.63 goals per game. One of the biggest reason for their success up front has been their depth down the middle.

Sophomore Erik Haula centers the second line for the Gophers but is just one point behind Bjugstad for the team lead in points. Haula is an offensive wizard and has 23 assists to go along with his 14 goals this season.

Don't be surprised if you see Minnestoa's third line match up with the Badgers top group this weekend. Wausau native Nick Condon is one of the best two-way forwards in the WCHA and his line with Taylor Matson has the ability to shut down top lines from around the country.

GOPHER DEFENSE & GOALTENDERS

Probably the biggest reason for the Gophers resurgence this season has been because of the play of their defensmen. We knew that goaltender Kent Patterson was a stud between the pipes, but the play of their D-core has been vastly improved.

Many will credit that to the return of assistant coach Mike Guentzel to the program who left for a few years for stops in the USHL, Colorado College, and Nebraska-Omaha. Now that he's back in dinkytown, the Gophers blue-line is playing as solid as they have over the past decade.

Minnesota is third in the nation in team defense, allowing just 2.09 goals per game. The Badgers young offense with just one upperclassmen in the lineup this weekend are going to have their hands full putting points on the board.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Wisconsin's 55th ranked penalty kill is going to be challenged once again with one of the top power plays in the country. The Gophers enter the weekend ranked 7th in the nation in power play percentage (23.2%), and will force the Badgers to work this weekend covering shooting and passing lanes.

The Gophers have a pretty solid penalty kill as well. Minnesota is ranked 18th in the country in that department, killing 83.8% of their penalties. Wisconsin's power play currently ranks 16th in the nation, scoring 20.5% of the time with the man advantage.

THREE KEYS TO SUCCESS

  1. Move the puck. Assistant coach Gary Shuchuk tweeted this morning about how Mariucci looks like a lake the ice surface is so big. In reality, it isn't much bigger than the Kohl Center but the fact remains that there is a lot of time and space to be had this weekend. Wisconsin needs to be smart and move the puck to create lanes and make Minnesota cover all 200x100 feet of ice.
  2. Play with nothing to lose. The pressure this weekend is squarely on the Gophers. There aren't many people in the media giving the Badgers much of a chance this weekend. That's a good thing if you're Wisconsin. The Badgers seem to play better when the pressure is off of them and they can go out and just play hockey.
  3. Don't run around in the defensive zone. At times this season this young Badger squad has gotten caught chasing bodies in the d-zone. On a big ice sheet the Badgers are almost playing a zone in their own end, keeping bodies between their net and the puck carrier. Wisconsin can let Haula do pirouettes in the corner all weekend if he wants, but they can't get caught chasing the puck, because they are going to get burned.

COVERAGE

Both games this weekend will be live on FSN+. As always you can catch the games on the Badger Sports Network, and on WIBA 1310 with Brian Posick.

POLLS

Minnesota enters the weekend #4 in the USCHO.com poll, and #5 in the USA Hockey/USA Hockey Magazine poll. Wisconsin is not ranked.

INJURIES

Wisconsin junior Derek Lee will miss this weekends series (concussion).

Minnesota forward Nick Bjugstad is questionable, but the Gophers are expected to return Nick Larson and Ben Marshall this weekend.

LAST MEETING

The teams split earlier this season in Madison. The Badgers beat then top ranked Minnesota on Friday, and the Gophers got the better of the Badgers on Saturday.

FUN FACT

Wisconsin freshman Jake McCabe accelerated his studies to graduate high school in three years. Why is this relevant? His hometown Eau Clarie Memorial Old Abes played in the Wisconsin State Tournament yesterday. Jake would have been a senior for the Old Abes this season. Instead he'll be in Minneapolis to face the Gophers.

PREDICTION

I think you can expect to see a young club with some fire in their belly's this weekend. This is obviously a rivalry weekend and I also think the team is sick and tired of hearing how bad they are on the road.

Wisconsin is well aware that Minnesota can win the Cup this weekend and if you don't think that's going to play into their motivation, then you're nuts. There's no way that any player in that Badger locker room wants to see the Gophers parade the MacNaughton around in front of them.

However there is a reason that Minnesota is playing for a chance to win the Cup this weekend. I think the Gophers come out hard on Friday night and probably take it to the Badgers a little bit.

Saturday night, on senior night, I think the Gophers take their foot off the gas pedal a little bit after clinching a share of the regular season title and the Badgers steal one at Mariucci.

Split.

Friday Night: Minnesota 4, Wisconsin 2

Saturday Night: Wisconsin 3, Minnesota 2

Join the Badger conversation on Facebook! Go to our Facebook page and "like" us!

For more Wisconsin hockey coverage, follow Chuck on Twitter (@UWChuckSchwartz)

Chuck can also be reached via e-mail at chuckschwartz@live.com

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