When Wisconsin and Minnesota lace up the skates against each other Friday it will be their 267 all-time meeting according to UW records. It will be, however, the first meeting between the two schools as members of the newly formed Big Ten Hockey Conference.
Oh yeah, and it just so happens that the Gophers are ranked No. 1 in the country in both major polls.
"The fact that we're going into Minnesota and they're ranked where they are, our kids will be excited," Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves said this week. "It's an opportunity to bang the drum a little bit and make some noise by going in there and playing well, see what we can do"
The Badgers have had an odd start to the season with three bye weeks already to this point. The lack of consistent games has prevented Wisconsin from getting into a rhythm.
"I think everybody is excited to finally play," sophomore center Nic Kerdiles said after practice this week. "Just having two games the following weekend will be nice for once. It'll let us get into a flow."
Minnesota's Marriuci Arena gets a bad rap for its lack of energy, but that's never a problem during a weekend when Wisconsin is in town. Junior defenseman Jake McCabe talked about that enviromentent this week, and how a fast start and taking the crowd out of the game is a priority for the Badgers.
"We have all been to Mariucci so we all know what that environment entails," McCabe said. "We need to have a good start, we need to take those fans out of it because once they start yelling and screaming, the Gophers feed of that."
To no one's surprise, Michael Mersch leads the Badgers in goals once again this season with five through the first eight games. The senior winger from Park Ridge, Ill., has been a consistent force for the Badgers on the line with Kerdiles and Morgan Zulinick and reached a special milestone last weekend, becoming the 50th Wisconsin skater and the fourth of the Eaves era to notch 50 goals in a Badger uniform.
Mersch and agressive forwards like Kerdiles, Joseph Labate and Tyler Barnes will be key this weekend against a Gophers' defense that is extremely talented but lacks physicality with the losses of players like Seth Helgeson and Mark Alt to pro hockey. To this point, one of the achilles' heels of Minnesota has been allowing teams to push them around out in front of the net and the Badgers must take advantage of that this weekend.
WISCONSIN DEFENSE & GOALTENDERS
The old cliche "a good offense can be your best defense" rings true for the Badgers this weekend. Minnesota is one of the best transition teams in the country, and keeping consistent forechecking pressure will go a long way to limiting odd-man opportunities back towards Wisconsin's goal.
"They have a lot of speed and skill up front, so our forecheck is crucial," McCabe said. "We can't get beat up the ice and let them have a full head of steam coming up the ice at us defensemen."
Casual hockey fans have criticized the Badgers in the past for playing a trapping style of hockey. What most don't realize is last year Wisconsin changed up its offensive systems to a more aggressive style in the offensive zone that not only creates more turnovers but limits odd-man transition back the other way.
Last season the Badgers struggled to run this consistently in the early going, but were very effective once the season wore on. That same inconsistency has plagued UW in the early going this year. Too often in the Boston College debacle earlier this season the Badgers were caught flat-footed against a great skating team. Simply put, that can't happen this weekend if Wisconsin wants to have a chance at winning.
UW's defensemen have free reign to pinch and play aggressively if the offensive zone. That's fine, but the key is recognition from the weak-side defenseman and third forward in the zone to be aware and position themselves so they can back out of the zone with a clear Gopher possession.
Also of note, goaltender Joel Rumpel (ankle) returned to action the last time Wisconsin was on the ice and performed very well, stopping 32 of 34 shots in a 3-2 UW win over Miami. Despite that result, Eaves has announced Landon Peterson as his starter for Friday's game. Peterson also played well two weekend's ago against the RedHawks, stopping 34 of 35 shots.
The story of the season so far has been the Gophers' ability to replace the veteran talent of players like Nick Bjugstad, Erik Haula and Zach Budish with an elite recruiting class of blue-chip freshman forwards.
So far, so good.
Fasching is currently playing on a line with Big Ten preseason player of the year Kyle Rau and junior winger Sam Warning that has been one of the most effective groups in college hockey this season. Fasching leads the club in goals with six and Warning leads in assists with 14. All three players have double-digit point totals through 12 games this season and will be a group to keep an eye on this weekend.
Minnesota's second unit with Kloos in the middle of Cammarata and Wausau, Wis., native Nate Condon is also a threat to strike at any time.
MINNESOTA DEFENSE & GOALTENDERS
You can't talk about this group without starting with Adam Wilcox between the pipes. The sophomore was pulled Sunday in a blowout against Minnesota-Duluth, but that was more for the sake of saving his confidence than his performance.
In 50 games during his short collegiate career, Wilcox sports a very respectable .922 save percentage and 1.96 goals-against average. Despite Sunday's result against the Bulldogs, Wilcox is still thought of as one of the top goaltenders in college hockey and the Badgers are going to have to work to beat him this weekend.
As I mentioned previously, the Gophers have very talented defensemen but lack a physical presence to really discourage the opposition from getting to the dirty areas. Jake Parenteau fits that bill, but the senior is not a lock to even be in the lineup this weekend with the emergence of more offensive options in freshmen Michael Brodzinski and Jake Bischoff.
The advantage this group has is they are all good skaters and move the puck better than probably any group in the country. Mikey Reilly and Ben Marshall are both offensive threats from the blueline, as is the previously mentioned Brodzinski.
The biggest criticism of the top-ranked Gophers this season has been the lack of effectiveness on both the power play and the penalty kill through 12 games this season. The Gophers rank towards the bottom of the country in both categories.
The Badgers haven't been outstanding in either category so far this season, but have worked hard in the film room with extra time available during the bye week and are hoping to take advantage this weekend against Minnesota.
"We scouted their power play today and they move the puck well," McCabe said. "Both units are very similar, you just have to recognize their tendencies.
"Our power play, we have had glimpses of greatness this year, so we have to continue that through."
BY THE NUMBERS
||No. 14 (3.25/gm)
||No. 2 (4.17/gm)
||No. 47 (3.38/gm)
||No. 10 (2.17/gm)
||No. 23 (20.6%)||No. 43 (15.3%)
||No. 37 (80.6%)
||Tied - No. 44 (77.8%)
||5-feet-11.92, 190.15 pounds||5-feet-11.12, 185.68 pounds
||21 years, 8 months
||20 years, 9 months|
Friday's game (4:00 CT start time) will be live on ESPNU.
Saturday's game (5:00 CT start time) will be live on Fox Sports Wisconsin.
Radio for this weekend is WIBA 1310 on Friday and WTSO 1070 on Saturday. You can also stream the radio feed online at Badgersportsnetwork.com.
Minnesota is ranked No. 1 in both the USCHO.com and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine polls.
Wisconsin is ranked No. 12 in the USCHO.com poll and No. 13 in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll.
Rumpel (ankle) returned to action and is expected to be active this weekend for the Badgers.
Wisconsin moved to 3-0 in the modern era of outdoor games, defeating the Gophers, 3-2, at Soldier Field in Chicago during the Hockey City Classic.
Wisconsin is 8-6-3 against the No. 1 team in the nation under Eaves, including a 3-2 record against the Gophers when they have been the top-ranked team in the country.
Sam Warning - Kyle Rau - Hudson Fasching
Nate Condon - Justin Kloos - Connor Reilly
Tom Serratore - Travis Boyd - Seth Ambroz
A.J. Michaelson - Gabe Guertler - Vinni Lettieri
Jake McCabe - Frankie Simonelli
Kevin Schulze - Joe Faust
Eddie Wittchow - Chase Drake
"There is no team I hate more than the Gophers. I know a lot of the guys agree with that and I don't think they like us too much. I can't wait to get the first hit out of the way. Hopefully it is a good one." -- Wisconsin junior defenseman Jake McCabe
BADGER HOCKEY DIGEST
For more hockey coverage, follow Andy on Twitter -- Follow @AndyJohnsonB5Q
You can also reach Andy via e-mail (AndyJohnsonB5Q@gmail.com)