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Wisconsin hockey series preview: Minnesota

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Wisconsin will honor the 25th anniversary of the 1990 NCAA championship team before Saturday's game against Minnesota.

Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images

Mike Eaves is drawing a line in the sand. The cliche-driven bench boss of the 2-15-3 Wisconsin men's hockey team has had enough.

After the 6-0 thrashing the Badgers took last Saturday at the hands of Michigan -- which came one night after blowing a 4-1 lead against the same team -- Eaves announced that no player's job is safe. Saturday's game saw some of the top players on the team miss ice time.

Eaves reiterated that point this week during his media availability.

"We're not a professional team where we can send guys down or trade for guys," Eaves said. "Really the only piece that we have that's controlling is ice time."

Eaves went on to add that there's a fine line when benching some of the best players on the team.

"You kind of get caught between a rock and a hard spot because if you sit one of your top six guys for very long it hurts the team, it's a gentle kick in the fanny to say, 'You need to wake up and get going here, you're hurting your teammates and you need to straighten it out.'

"So I think we're at a point where we know our players better now than we did in the beginning of the year, obviously, and we can do stuff to gently remind them, hey, wake up, it's time to get going here."

Outside of the fact it took 20 games for the UW coaching staff to start making players answer for their play, it's nice to finally see some accountability.

While it would take a lot for Wisconsin to salvage the current season, churning out some positive results this weekend against Minnesota would be a big step in the right direction. The Badgers host the Gophers at the Kohl Center Friday and Saturday for a two-game Big Ten series, which should be interesting given the fact neither team has played well lately.

Wisconsin's struggles have been chronicled here regularly. Minnesota, who was the runaway favorite to win the Big Ten this season, hasn't been much better of late, going just 4-9-2 over its past 14 games which includes losses to Minnesota State and Minnesota Duluth last weekend.

These two teams met just two weeks ago at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis. While Minnesota dominated both games, the Badgers were able to eek out a tie on Friday night. UW would add an extra point in the league standings by winning the shootout. The Gophers would get the best of Wisconsin on Saturday, taking the finale, 5-2.

"It's going to be a competitive series, always is," Eaves said. "Doesn't matter where we are in the standings, it's always competitive, hard fought, and it will be much the same this weekend."

Wisconsin offense

UW's offense showed some signs of life for a change last Friday against Michigan, as the Badgers were able to build a 4-1 lead early in the second period of the series opener. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, that was all the offense it would muster on the weekend, as Michigan scored 12 unanswered goals to finish the series.

On a positive note, Wisconsin scored three power play goals on the weekend. The Badgers have been embarrassing most of the season on the man advantage, so showing signs of life in that category is a welcomed trend.

When asked on Monday if he may look at changing his lineup, Eaves implied there isn't much else he can do.

"We talked about it in terms of which guys are real candidates to be in the top six," Eaves said. "And I think we have that, and we've seen some good things from (Joseph) LaBate and (Grant) Besse and (Adam) Rockwood at times and we have seen some good things from (Cameron) Hughes, and (Morgan) Zulinick and (Jedd) Soleway at times.

"The consistency hasn't been there but we ask ourselves is (Matt) Ustaski ready to be part of that mix, is (Ryan) Wagner? Is (Brad) Navin? You know, at this point we don't think so."

Eaves changed his tune later in the week, however, telling the Wisconsin State Journal that Wagner will be bumped up to the top line with LaBate and Besse Friday night.

"He may give them more balance," Eaves said.

Wisconsin defense and goaltenders

Simply put, Wisconsin didn't get the goaltending it needed to win last weekend against Michigan. Joel Rumpel gave up 10 goals on the weekend and Landon Peterson gave up another two in relief.

Don't get me wrong, you can't blame the goalies. Rumpel is probably the only reason the Badgers have shown any competitiveness this season. Unfortunately, if he doesn't play like Vladislav Tretiak, Wisconsin is in trouble. UW will need him to pull a miracle or two this weekend if it wants to keep the games competitive.

One positive note is the return of Eddie Wittchow to the Wisconsin lineup. The junior blueliner missed the Michigan series after being suspended for two games by the Big Ten for a hit he handed out two weeks ago in the Minnesota series. The Badgers missed his presence on defense against the Wolverines.

Minnesota scouting report

The Gophers are an interesting case because on paper they should be a Frozen Four contender. They returned a boat-load of talent this season and were expected to be particularly strong in the most important area, goaltending.

Minnesota's No. 1 goalie, Adam Wilcox, hasn't performed up to expectations so far this season. The junior backstop has just a .907 save percentage after being over .930 as a sophomore. Additionally, according to SB Nation's Nathan Wells, Wilcox has a save percentage of just .865 since Jan. 2, which coincides with the Gophers' downward spiral.

The Gophers have been able to put the puck in the net this season, ranking as the No. 12 scoring offense in the country. But even though they've been able to score, they seem to lack leadership and emotion. It appears the loss of players like Tom Serratore hurt worse than expected.

By the numbers

WISCONSIN MINNESOTA
RECORD
2-15-3 (0-5-1-1 Big Ten)
11-9-2, (2-2-2-0 Big Ten)
SCORING OFFENSE
1.80/gm
3.23/gm
SCORING DEFENSE
3.90/gm
2.55/gm
POWER PLAY
13.00% 25.6%
PENALTY KILL
75.00%
81.2%
PAIRWISE RANKING
No. 55
No. 20
RPI
No. 55
No. 20
KRACH
No. 50
No. 19
AVG. HEIGHT/WEIGHT
5'11.89, 187.59 pounds 5'11.70, 187.85 pounds
AVG. AGE
21 years, 2 months
21 years, 2 months

Coverage

Both games will be televised on BTN. Friday's game has an 8:00 p.m. CT puck drop, while Saturday's start time is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. CT.

Both games will stream for free on BTN2Go.com.

As always, Brian Posick will call the games on the radio this weekend. You can find his call on WIBA 1310 and also on the Badger Radio Network.

Polls

Wisconsin is not ranked.

Minnesota is receiving votes in both the USCHO.com poll and the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll.

Injuries

Wisconsin: None.

Minnesota: Ryan Collins (Illness) is questionable.

Last meeting

Wisconsin lost to Minnesota, 5-2, on Jan. 17, one night after coming back and earning a tie. The Badgers also captured an extra point in the Friday game by winning the shootout.

Fun fact

Wisconsin's 1990 NCAA championship team will be in attendance and honored during Wisconsin's game on Saturday against Minnesota at the Kohl Center.

Projected lineup

Ryan Wagner - Joseph LaBate - Grant Besse
Morgan Zulinick - Cameron Hughes - Jedd Soleway
Matt Ustaski - Adam Rockwood - Brad Navin
Aidan Cavallini - Matt Paape - Corbin McGuire

Kevin Schulze - Jake Linhart
Eddie Wittchow - Jack Dougherty
Tim Davison - Chase Drake

Joel Rumpel - Landon Peterson

Badger Hockey Digest

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