The No. 16 Wisconsin Badgers (6-6-0 overall, 1-3-0-0 B1G) take on the other youngest team in the country this weekend in Minneapolis. The Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-6-2 overall, 1-3-2-2 B1G) are coming off a weekend where they were swept out of their own barn by No. 8 Penn State.
Both of these teams give up goals in bunches but Wisconsin has an edge in the offensive firepower department. These games should be exciting, high-scoring, defense optional affairs and I, for one, am praying for the goalies.
Andy York from our SB Nation cousins The Daily Gopher was kind enough to take some time out of his day to answer our questions ahead of the Border Battle.
1) The Badgers and the Gophers are the two youngest teams in the country this year. On Wisconsin’s side that has led to a lot of...how do I put this...inconsistency from game to game. How has Minnesota been dealing with their youth movement?
Very similarly. Inconsistent is a good word. Minnesota has gotten some quality play from their freshman, most notably goaltender Jared Moe. But freshmen are liabilities for a reason. Ryan Johnson, the Buffalo Sabres first round draft pick, has looked decent at times and lost at times on the blue line. Plus/minus is a bit of an overrated stat but Jackson LaComb, another of the Gophers highly rated freshmen defensemen, is a -8 so far this season.
Ben Meyers has started to heat up of late as Minnesota expected him to score goals after being one of the top three scorers in the USHL a year ago, but overall the Minnesota freshmen have not quite made the impact that many had hoped so far.
2) Who are the most important players offensively and defensively for Minnesota?
Offensively there is no question it’s sophomore Sammy Walker. The Edina, Minn. native had a great freshman season and has jumped right back in leading the Gophers in points and goals thus far. His speed and skating ability make him very dangerous in space as Notre Dame found out in the 3-on-3 extra period a few weekends ago.
Defensively it’s probably is a split between Minnesota’s two goaltenders in Michigan transfer Jack LaFontaine and Moe. Both have played well so far this weekend with LaFontaine’s game against Penn State last Friday being the exception. He got absolutely zero help from his defense however. I would expect to see a split between them once again this weekend.
3) Two shootout victories (over Michigan and Notre Dame) and one OT win over Niagara early in the year is pretty impressive. What has made Minnesota so successful in overtime this year?
That is an absolute mystery to us, as prior to this season they have been awful at trying to win the extra point in Big Ten games. The 3-on-3 period has helped a lot, I would expect, as Minnesota does have some of fast, great skaters that excel in that format, but it is a definite transition from the last few seasons.
4) Minnesota has given up 40 goals this year, second-worst in the conference barely ahead of...Wisconsin’s 42. What do the Gophers need to do to shore up their defense and can they then tell Wisconsin what they’ve figured out?
I think a lot comes back to the youth. Minnesota plays three freshmen and a sophomore who was the youngest player in all of college hockey last season. The defensive corps has...lets say not been the strength of Don Lucia’s last few recruiting classes and Bob Motzko has come in and made that an immediate priority.
But the growing pains are real. Minnesota needs to do a better job of clogging up the middle of the ice and forcing shots from the outside as well. Penn State killed the Gophers last weekend right up the middle, and with Wisconsin’s scoring talent if they are allowed to do that as well I feel it will probably be similarly ugly for the Gophers.
5) Prediction for the series? Who will be the MVP for the Gophers?
I’ll say a split. Badgers win Friday night and Minnesota returns the favor Saturday when Moe plays a hell of a game to backstop the Gophers to the win.