Wisconsin hockey series preview: Badgers face top-ranked Gophers

Keegan Meuer (12) takes a faceoff at last year's outdoor game vs. Minnesota's Nate Condon. - Larry Radloff Photography

Wisconsin hosts No. 1 Minnesota this week in a rare Thursday/Friday series. Both games will be featured on the Big Ten Network.

In college hockey, it doesn't get much better than this. Top-ranked Minnesota is headed to Madison this week for a rare Thursday/Friday series to take on long-time rival Wisconsin.

The Badgers (14-8-2, 5-4-1 Big Ten) are coming off a series last weekend at Michigan in which they took just one of six points from the Wolverines. UW lost on Friday, 3-1, and tied on Saturday, 2-2. Michigan picked up the extra point on Saturday by winning the shootout.

Despite the result, Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves was happy with the way his team responded in the finale.

"We were a better team on Saturday and had every opportunity to win that game -- especially in overtime," Eaves said at his weekly press conference. "Looking at the video, we had some outstanding scoring chances."

Things don't get any easier for the Badgers this week, as the No. 1 Gophers (19-2-5, 8-0-2 Big Ten) come to town with one of the more prolific offenses in the nation. Eaves said Wisconsin's best defense against Minnesota can be a good offense.

"With a high-powered offense like (Minnesota) has, we want to play in their zone," Eaves said. "We want to make them play as far away from our net as they can. And I think by doing that, we can control the play in their zone."

Wisconsin offense

One player who should help on the offensive end this weekend for the Badgers is Nic Kerdiles. The sophomore has missed the previous six games with a shoulder injury he suffered Jan. 4 vs. Alaska-Anchorage, but is expected to be in the lineup Thursday.

While he's played center all season, Kerdiles is expected to line up on the left wing on Mark Zengerle's line this weekend, which should give the UW offense an immediate boost. With Tyler Barnes not expected to play this weekend, the move gives Zengerle another weapon to put the puck in the net.

Speaking of Zengerle, the senior center was very good once again last weekend against Michigan, and even converted on the Badgers' first penalty-shot goal in nearly 20 years.

One major key for Zengerle and the rest of the Wisconsin centers this weekend is faceoffs. The Gophers are very good on draws, led by Kyle Rau. The Gophers' captain is winning close to 58 percent of his faceoffs this season. Minnesota is deep in the middle as well, with Justin Kloos, Travis Boyd and Nate Condon all over 50 percent on draws.

Wisconsin defense and goaltenders

One of the best players for the Badgers both nights last weekend was Joel Rumpel between the pipes. While he didn't have much to show for it in terms of results, the junior netminder played very well and has solidified the No. 1 job.

"(Rumpel) has gone in there, and because of his consistency of play and attention to detail, he's stepped up and been the number one guy," Eaves said. "(Rumpel) has been the number one guy because he's earned it. He's worked hard and paid attention to details and raised his level of play."

For the season, Rumpel carries an 11-3-1 record, ranks 10th in the country with a 2.02 goals-against average and is 13th with a .928 save percentage.

While it's hard to sometimes judge defensemen if they aren't putting up points, that doesn't mean they aren't doing other things to help the team win. When perusing the stats this week, one quirky stat stood out for a few Wisconsin defenders: blocked shots.

Jake McCabe leads the Badgers in shot blocks with 44, while captain Frankie Simonelli is right behind him with 42 on the season.

Minnesota offense

The story for much of the season for the Gophers has been the production they've been receiving from young forwards. Kloos and Hudson Fasching have led the way with 23 and 22 points respectively, while Taylor Cammarata has also been able to chip in with 15 points of his own.

Minnesota's rookie class has contributed 36 of the team's 95 goals this season (38 percent) and the freshmen lead the nation as a class with an average of 1.38 goals per game.

"It's impressive because they are young," Eaves said. "A lot of times a little dog can bite you in the fanny just as easy as old dogs. You've got to be ready for anything that comes your way, and they've done a nice job."

While his offensive numbers may not be what many expected coming into the season, Rau is still a player that needs to be accounted for this weekend. The junior center ranks second on the club with 24 points this year, and the Gophers are 57-8-5 when he records a point during his career.

Another player that is likely to generate attention is Nate Condon. The senior from Wausau, Wis., will be playing his final college hockey games at the Kohl Center this weekend. A speedy center and team captain, Condon has five goals and 16 points on the season for the Gophers.

"Nate brings great speed," Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said this week. "He can play in basically every situation on the ice. He's a guy you want on the ice when you're up by a goal with a minute to go because he's very responsible defensively.

"Just a great guy to be around -- Nate doesn't have many bad days."

Minnesota defense and goaltenders

Like the Badgers, everything on the back-end for the Gophers revolves around goaltender Adam Wilcox. The sophomore has been a standout since arriving on campus last fall, quieting the critics very early in his career.

Wilcox was great once again last weekend against Michigan State, earning the Big Ten's second star of the week after a shutout on Saturday night vs. the Spartans.

Wilcox (18-2-5) leads the Big Ten and is tied for second nationally with 18 wins this season, while his goals-against average (1.96) ranks him 10th in the country and his save percentage (.931) eighth.

Also, like Wisconsin, Minnesota has been able to get offense from its defensemen, as 22 of the Gophers' 95 goals this season have come from defensemen. Only Denver (23) has received more goals from defensemen this season. Wisconsin has 17 goals from the blueline this year.

One standout for the Gophers has been Mikey Reilly, who leads all Big Ten defensemen in points this season with 22. The sophomore is currently on a five-game assist streak, with eight helpers during that time frame.

Special teams

The Badgers took more penalties than they would have liked against Michigan last weekend, but the penalty kill was superb against the Wolverines. In fact, Wisconsin has killed off 20 straight power plays, and have climbed to No. 14 in the nation in penalty kill percentage (84.8).

The Badgers' power play hasn't been good most of the season, and it's hard to see that improving much this weekend, even with Kerdiles back in the lineup. The Gophers have been outstanding on the penalty kill since last losing in November, allowing just three power-play goals by opponents in 41 attempts (.927 kill rate, 38-for-41).

By the numbers


WISCONSIN
MINNESOTA
RECORD
(14-8-2, 5-4-1 Big Ten) (19-2-5, 8-0-2 Big Ten)
SCORING OFFENSE
3.33/gm (11th)
3.65/gm (4th)
SCORING DEFENSE
2.71/gm (26th)
1.96/gm (3rd)
POWER PLAY
14.8% (47th) 19.3% (23rd)
PENALTY KILL
84.8% (14th)
84.2% (16th)
PAIRWISE RANKING
No. 13
No. 1
RPI
No. 13
No. 1
KRACH
No. 14
No. 1
AVG. HEIGHT/WEIGHT
5'11.92, 190.15 pounds 5'11.12, 185.68 pounds
AVG. AGE
21 years, 11 months
21 years, 0 months

Coverage

NOTE: 7:30 p.m. CT puck drop Thursday, 8:00 p.m. CT puck drop Friday

Both games will be on the Big Ten Network with Matt Sheperd on play-by-blay and Ben Clymer and Rob Andringa doing color.

As always, you can listen on WIBA 1310 and the Badger Sports Network with Brian Posick on the call. Ian Perrin will be in the booth doing color on Thursday, and Theran Welsh will join Posick on Friday.

Polls

Wisconsin is ranked No. 12 in both the USCHO.com and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine polls.

Minnesota is ranked No. 1 in both the USCHO.com and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine polls.

Injuries

Nic Kerdiles is probable for Wisconsin.

Tyler Barnes is doubtful for Wisconsin.

Tom Serratore is out for Minnesota.

Michael Brodzinski is out for Minnesota.

Last meeting

The Badgers were swept at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis earlier this season 4-1, 4-3.

Fun fact

Wisconsin's only Hobey Baker winner, Blake Geoffrion, will be back at the Kohl Center Friday night raising funds for Bucket of Hope. There will be posters given out for a $5 donation, and an autograph session with Geoffrion from 7-7:45.

There will also be 30 limited edition prints that are autographed by 30 legendary Wisconsin hockey players including Mark Johnson, Brian Elliott, Dany Heatley, Mike Eaves, Gary Shuchuk, Jessie Vetter, Adam Burish and Joe Pavelski, just to name a few. The limited edition autographed prints will sell for $500, with the money going to Bucket of Hope.

Projected lineup

Nic Kerdiles-Mark Zengerle-Sean Little
Morgan Zulinick-Jefferson Dahl-Michael Mersch
Brad Navin-Joseph LaBate-Grant Besse
Matt Paape-Keegan Meuer-Jedd Soleway

Kevin Schulze-Frankie Simonelli
Jake McCabe-Joe Faust
Eddie Wittchow-Chase Drake

Joel Rumpel
Landon Peterson

Big Ten standings

CONFERENCE OVERALL
PTS GP W L T SOW GF GA GP W L T GF GA
Minnesota 26 10 8 0 2 0 29 16 26 19 2 5 95 51
Michigan 17 8 5 2 1 1 24 21 22 13 6 3 62 49
Wisconsin
16 10 5 4 1 0 32 26 24 14 8 2 80 65
Ohio State
13 10 4 5 1 0 31 27 24 14 9 1 87 65
Michigan State
12 10 2 5 3 3 19 23 25 8 13 4 55 59
Penn State
0 8 0 8 0 0 13 35 22 4 17 1 48 86

Badger Hockey Digest

For more hockey coverage, follow Andy on Twitter --
You can also reach Andy via e-mail (AndyJohnsonB5Q@gmail.com)

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