Fresh off a victory against Bemidji State, the focus of UW men’s hockey coach Mike Eaves’ press conference Monday was this weekend’s series with Minnesota.
Games against a rival like No. 2 Minnesota always have a buzz around them, but this weekend is special. Sunday’s game will be the only outdoor game either team has this season, and it will be played on Chicago’s historic Soldier Field.
When asked about Sunday’s game, dubbed the “Hockey City Classic,” Eaves was excited about what the game could mean to the Badgers.
“This weekend will serve to be a real emotional boost,” Eaves said. “The fact that we play, [have] a day off, and then do something totally out of the norm, playing outside in front of 50,000 plus people, I think it’s a really good thing.”
Eaves, who has coached teams in outdoor games before — including a game at Camp Randall two years ago against Michigan — hopes his previous experience, along with the experience from the players who participated in that game, will give the Badgers an edge in terms of the intangibles that come with this type of event.
“I don’t know what Minnesota knows about playing outside,” Eaves said. “I don’t know what kind of underwear they are going to wear … I don’t know if that becomes a big factor. So it’s hard to measure. A lot of our guys, I’d have to go check our list. How many of our guys played that outdoor game at Camp Randall, that’s another factor.”
With only eight games left in the season, Wisconsin is tied for fifth in the WCHA standings with 25 points, just one point behind Minnesota and six points off the pace of first-place St. Cloud State.
If the Badgers are hoping to launch a late-season run for the top of the standings, there may be no better opportunity than under the lights of Soldier Field against a rival like Minnesota.
But in order to do that, Wisconsin will need to score goals, plain and simple. Over the past week of games, Wisconsin’s two leading scorers — junior forwards Tyler Barnes and Mark Zengerle — have both been held off the stat sheet, a particularly worrying situation as the Badgers take on the second-ranked college hockey team in the country.
“I think one of the greatest challenges of our job is to try to figure out where these young people are at in their growth emotionally, mentally, physically and try to coach them up,” Eaves said. “It’s really easy to get down and berate them. I think there has to be some honesty in your talk, but at the same time you have to find where they are at, what’s going on.”
Even if the offense does get firing on all cylinders, another boost may be coming for UW, in the form of sophomore defenseman Jake McCabe.
“Jake made progress this Saturday on the ice,” Eaves said. “I’m hoping that with another day off that he’ll come out today and be able to do more, and be ready to get interjected back into the lineup.”
The return of McCabe could be great news for Wisconsin, whose squad has been riddled with injuries the whole season.
McCabe is currently seventh on the team in points with 10 and fifth in assists with eight. The presence of one of the better players on the team could give UW help with their struggling power play.
The struggles with injury and the power play has led to an interesting season so far, one in which the Badgers have tied the school record for both ties (seven) and overtime games (seven).
“Moving forward we keep pressing on the same things that we’ve been hitting in practice,” Eaves said. “I think that if we can get our power play to spike up a little bit here by getting everybody back on that number one unit that we would like to, that [could] be a difference maker in those close games.”