Playing hockey outdoors anytime is fun. Playing hockey outdoors in front of 50,000-plus fans at Chicago's Soldier Field is special. Doing it against your top rival, the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who just happen to come into the weekend ranked No. 2 in the country? Well, that's a memory that will last a lifetime.
"Whenever you talk to someone playing outside, it's like traveling back in time," Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves said this week.
"When you get on outdoor ice -- the sound the skate makes when it cuts the ice, the way the puck sounds on your stick, it takes you right back in time. That's what makes it so unique."
When Wisconsin (12-9-7, 9-6-7 WCHA) meets Minnesota (19-5-4, 11-5-4 WCHA) this weekend for the OfficeMax Hockey City Classic, it will mark their final two regular-season meetings as members of the WCHA. Turning the page on this chapter of the rivalry in front of 50,000 people seems like quite the story.
The outdoor game at Soldier Field will mark the third outdoor game of the modern era for Wisconsin. The Badgers beat Ohio State, 4-2, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay in front of 40,890 fans in 2006. Staying perfect in outdoor games, the Badgers knocked off Michigan, 3-2, at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison in 2010 in front of a crowd of 55,031.
Both seasons in which the Badgers played an outdoor game, they went on to make the Frozen Four. This week, Eaves talked about the emotional lift an event like this can bring to a team.
"The exciting part about it is, we've talked previously, is the fact that this weekend will serve to be a real emotional boost," he said on Monday. "I think, here in the dog days of the second half of the WCHA and the fact that we play a day off and then do something totally out of the norm of playing outside in front of 50,000-plus people, I think, is a really good thing."
On top of the outdoor game, this weekend is a giant opportunity for Wisconsin to make up ground in the WCHA against a team currently ahead in the standings. Additionally, positive results for the Badgers would go a long ways in terms of improving their NCAA tournament hopes.
Wisconsin senior center Derek Lee talked about what this weekend means to the players in the locker room.
"I think it's exciting for all of us," Lee said. "We know the magnitude of the game. It's arguably your biggest rival in Minnesota."
"It's a big weekend for us in terms of the standings, in terms of publicity for both teams, and having this mystique of an outdoor game. It's exciting for us."
We haven't discussed it here in quite some time, because honestly it's tiring, but the power-play has reached lows that this program has never seen before. Wisconsin is now 58th out of 59 teams in college hockey in power-play percent at a paltry 10.5%.
When asked after Saturday's game to describe his power-play in one word, Eaves used "anemic."
Lee wasn't as friendly when pestered with the same question following the 3-2 win over Bemidji State.
"I think it's something that we're going to keep working at," he quipped.
"You keep asking us questions about it every week, we're going to give you the same answer. We're going to go back to work, we're going to get pucks and bodies to the net, we're going to try and keep it simple. That's all we can do."
Things won't get much easier for the Badgers this weekend. Minnesota is ranked sixth in the country on the penalty kill, successfully killing 88.5 percent of its penalties. The Gophers are also the ninth-least penalized team in the country, which puts even more pressure on the shoulders of the Badgers on any power-plays they may receive.
One positive for the Badger offense last weekend was the return of Lee. After missing the previous three games with a concussion, Lee suited up in Saturday's win. Adding a threat like Lee to the point on the power-play could be the spark that Eaves has been looking for on his top unit.
WISCONSIN DEFENSE & GOALTENDERS
Wisconsin's defense had a rare off-weekend in its previous series vs. Bemidji State. The Badgers had been playing well, but couldn't hold a lead on Friday. After jumping out to a 3-0 lead Saturday, they let the Beavers back into the game before finally shutting the door in the 3-2 win.
Eaves clearly wasn't pleased with the way things transpired on Saturday.
"I didn't think our defensemen played particularly well," he said. "I thought they struggled with the puck for whatever reason."
"Defensively, I thought there were some breakdowns, which is one of the reasons we're not going to go outside Monday. We're going to get back to work and do some of those things and just get back to some good habits."
Thankfully, Wisconsin's outstanding goaltending duo of Joel Rumpel and Landon Peterson was once again solid, for the most part. Rumpel gave up a soft goal on Friday, but was solid the rest of the way in stopping 25 of 27 shots. Peterson did his job on Saturday, turning aside 18 of 20 in virtually a must-win game.
No official update has been given on the status of sophomore defenseman Jake McCabe (ankle), but it's expected that if there are no set-backs before the weekend, he is going to try and play on Friday.
Coming into the season, the Gophers' offense was lauded as one of the top groups in the country. To this point, it's lived up to the billing. To the surprise of no one, Minnesota leads the conference and the country in goals per game.
One of the reasons why the Gophers are so special this season is their incredible depth up front. Eaves called Minnesota's group the deepest in the WCHA.
"At the beginning of the year when we played them back in the fall, we felt at that time their depth of forward is probably the best in the league," he said.
The Gophers have a number of weapons, but their top two lines are especially scary. 6-foot-6, 220-pound beast Nick Bjugstad centers one group, while Finnish whiz Erik Haula centers the other. Splitting the pair up creates a game of Russian roulette of sorts in deciding which player deserves the most defensive attention. Bjugstad leads the club in scoring with 15 goals, while Haula leads in total points with 35.
Another player to keep an eye on this weekend is center/wing Nate Condon. The Wausau, Wis., native is one of just a handful of Wisconsin residents to ever suit up for the maroon and gold and is having a big season in an elevated role with 10 goals and 16 assists for 26 points in 28 games.
MINNESOTA DEFENSE & GOALTENDERS
While the Gophers' offense has drawn most of the headlines so far this season, their back-end has been equally impressive. Currently, Minnesota ranks fourth in the country with just 1.93 goals allowed per game.
A large part of that has been due to the play of freshman goaltender Adam Wilcox. Sort of a wildcard heading into the season, Wilcox has been superb, rocking a .921 save percentage and a 1.80 goals-against average.
Minnesota also features one of the best offensive defensemen in the country in St. Cloud, Minn., native Nate Schmidt. The junior blue-liner leads all defensemen in the country in scoring with 28 points and is the only defenseman in the country currently averaging at least one point per game.
The Gophers are so deep defensively, they've been playing defensemen at forward to get as much talent onto the ice as they possibly can. Don't be surprised to see Justin Holl, Jake Parenteau or possibly both on the wing this weekend.
THREE KEYS TO SUCCESS VS MINNESOTA
- Control what you can control. One of Mike Eaves' favorite cliches. The Badgers can't get into an up-and-down scoring fest with the Gophers this weekend, but they can control how they play in their own end.
- Limit Minnesota's transition game. This kind of piggybacks off No. 1, but the Gophers are one of the best transition teams in the country. It will be incredibly important to back-check with a purpose this weekend.
- Convert opportunities. Minnesota doesn't give many chances to win hockey games, but when it does, the moment needs to be seized. It's obviously easier said than done, but there are a number of players on Wisconsin's roster who are a goal or two away from the floodgates opening. A goal in a big game will go a long ways in the confidence department.
BY THE NUMBERS
|12-9-7 (9-6-7 WCHA)
|19-5-4, (11-5-4 WCHA)
|6-feet-0.15 / 187.92 lbs.
|6-feet-0.37 / 189.19 lbs.
|21 years, 5 months
|20 years, 11 months
Friday's game (7 PM) can be seen live on Fox Sports North and Fox Sports Wisconsin. It can also be seen nationally on Fox College Sports Central.
Sunday's outdoor game (3:30 PM) can be seen live on the Big Ten Network.
As always, the games can be found on the radio on the Badger Sports Network and WIBA 1310.
Minnesota is ranked No. 2 in both the USCHO.com and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine polls.
Wisconsin is ranked No. 18 in the USCHO.com poll and is receiving votes in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll.
Morgan Zulinick (thigh) is out.
Jake McCabe (ankle) is probable.
Minnesota took three points from the Badgers at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis in November. After a 2-2 tie on Friday, the Gophers won 3-2 on Saturday.
This will be the Gophers' first outdoor hockey game in the modern era.
"It will add another chapter (to the rivalry). We tried to get (Minnesota) to come in and play at Camp Randall, but it didn't work out for whatever reason. I was pleased and happy inside to hear that [Don Lucia] wanted to play outside this time in Chicago." -- Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves.
PROJECTED LINEUP (Wisconsin State Journal)
Joseph LaBate-Derek Lee-Michael Mersch
Nic Kerdiles-Mark Zengerle-Tyler Barnes
Ryan Little-Jefferson Dahl-Sean Little
Matt Paape-Brendan Woods-Keegan Meuer
Jake McCabe-Frankie Simonelli
Kevin Schulze-John Ramage
Chase Drake-Joe Faust
Joel Rumpel/Landon Peterson
Well, this is obviously one of the biggest weekends of the year on a number of different levels. It's the last time these two teams will meet in the regular season as members of the WCHA. Sunday's game will be played outdoors at Soldier Field in Chicago. Additionally, the two teams are close in the standings and every game is critical for Wisconsin in terms of the Pairwise right now.
There's no question the Gophers are the better team on paper. I think they've proven that based on their results throughout the season. That said, the Badgers aren't chopped liver either. Not many teams play as consistently on defense as Wisconsin, which would indicate we're going to see two close games this weekend.
To be honest, I think it's hard not to give the Gophers the advantage, so I'll take them to win on Friday. As for the outdoor game, it's basically a toss-up given the unknowns with ice condition, temperatures, wind, etc. Given the small rink and Wisconsin's discipline, I'll take the Badgers at Soldier Field.
Friday: Minnesota 4, Wisconsin 2
Saturday: Wisconsin 3, Minnesota 2
BADGER HOCKEY DIGEST (UWBADGERS.COM)
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