For most Badgers, love is in the air today, but for members of the Wisconsin men’s hockey team vengeance, rivalry and aggression are the only things on their mind.
No. 18 Wisconsin (12-9-7, 9-6-7 WCHA) will take on archrival No. 2 Minnesota (19-5-4, 11-5-4 WCHA) in a highly anticipated series with major conference implications on the line. UW sits a single point behind Minnesota in the WCHA – a conference with its top seven teams separated by just six points.
Adding to the hype is the long-awaited Hockey City Classic that places this border battle in the spotlight of Chicago’s iconic Soldier Field Sunday.
“This is probably this biggest series of my college career and definitely, probably the biggest series for the team this year,” sophomore forward Joseph LaBate said. “Everyone has had this marked on their calendars.”
While the buzz surrounding the outdoor game is certainly in the back of both teams’ minds, what is at the front is the same as any weekend: two important games.
The last time these two teams met back in mid-November, Wisconsin refused to let Minnesota take home a win in game one, equalizing each Gopher goal with a goal of their own. Game two was a different story, as the Golden Gophers took over a Badger lead to win 3-1.
Historically, the teams have played 264 times, and, under the direction of head coach Mike Eaves, Wisconsin has recorded a lackluster 14-23-7 record in Border Battle games.
Freshman defenseman Kevin Schulze has played just two games against UW’s biggest foe thus far into his career but knows just how much rests in the rivalry, having grown up close to his new enemies.
“It is something special. It’s a border battle. We go back a long time and I think it’s in every sport, there is a big rivalry,” the White Bear Lake, Minn. native said. “I grew up playing with and against them my whole life so I know all those guys.”
What defines the rivalry from most other WCHA series is the elevated physical play that always unfolds when the two teams hit the ice. In the most recent series the teams tallied a combined 32 penalties, with 19 against Wisconsin and 13 against Minnesota.
While the physical play that will surely unfold this coming weekend is welcomed by Badger players, the team has struggled all season to capitalize with the man-advantage. The team averages just over one goal every ten power plays, putting away a total of nine on the season in 86 opportunities. Looking UW in the eyes come Friday will be a UM power play that ranks third in the nation and first in the WCHA, averaging a score every four power plays, totaling 32 throughout the season.
Although Wisconsin put away a power-play goal in last Friday’s 2-2 draw with Bemidji State, the team knows that against Minnesota they will need to take advantage of opportunity that comes their way.
“We have to capitalize. We got a power-play goal last weekend so hopefully that can spark us a little bit,” LaBate said. “We have been working on it quite a bit in practice, so hopefully that has improved it.”
Even without the man-advantage, Minnesota has excelled this season offensively, averaging 3.75 goals per game, the top mark in the nation. Gopher forward Nick Bjugstad leads the team in goals with 15.
A key member of the Wisconsin defensive unit looking to upset Minnesota, sophomore defenseman Jake McCabe skated at practices this week, but remains questionable for play due to an ankle injury he suffered two weeks ago at North Dakota.
Schulze and the rest of the UW defensive unit know with or without McCabe, the ability to shut down their opponent will be no easy task.
“[McCabe] is a great player and he is on our power play and killing penalties so he would be a big help,” Schulze said. “This week we have been working a lot on defensive zone coverage and staying with our man, and not letting guys get to the net for rebounds.”
Friday night the Badgers will play in the comfort of their own home at the Kohl Center, but come Sunday the outdoor game will be a whole new set of circumstances for both teams. It is the first time in the history of the modern Minnesota hockey program that its team has braved the elements.
While this will be Wisconsin’s fourth time in program history playing outdoors, just one player, senior defenseman and captain John Ramage has the experience, as he played in the Camp Randall Classic during his freshman year in 2010.
With both teams coming off disappointing weekends of conference play – Wisconsin tying Bemidji State last Friday and Minnesota falling to No. 8 St. Cloud State 4-3 Saturday – the intensity of the coming series could not be more intense. And with the anticipation surrounding the Hockey City Classic adding even more pressure, a fun and likely unpredictable Border Battle is upon college hockey this weekend.