There is probably no better way for the Wisconsin men’s hockey team to prepare for the first round of the WCHA playoffs than by going on the road for the second consecutive weekend to take on the fifth-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers, currently sitting atop the WCHA standings.
Trying to build off just its second and third road wins of the season in a sweep of Bemidji State last weekend, Wisconsin (15-15-2, 10-14-2 WCHA) looks to extend its three-game winning streak against a Minnesota (23-11-1, 19-7-0 WCHA) squad that split the earlier season series at the Kohl Center in November.
“We have to continue to play well and keep rolling in order for us to have a chance to play as long as we can, get through the playoffs, get to the Final Five and then see what happens,” UW head coach Mike Eaves said. “There’s a sense in the locker room from the inside out, an intrinsic sense, of how we need to play, after playing Denver well Friday but losing and then winning Saturday and then winning this past weekend in a tough environment in a rink that hasn’t given up very many wins there for the opponent.”
Minnesota also pulled off the road sweep last weekend, taking the brooms to Nebraska-Omaha and extending its own winning streak to four games. A single victory on the weekend will secure the WCHA title, the Gophers’ first league title since the 2006-07 season, thanks in large part to the quintet of 30-pont scorers that Minnesota features in forwards Nick Bjugstad (38), Erik Haula (37), Kyle Rau (34), Nate Schmidt (32) and defenseman Jake Hansen (30).
At this point in the season, it is difficult to discern which team will be more motivated come Friday night for game one. For the Badgers, the only playoff ramifications they face are which destination they will travel to for the first round of the playoffs. The Gophers maintain a two-point lead over Minnesota-Duluth, and in this, the last weekend of the regular season, could lose its grasp on the MacNaughton Cup and the WCHA regular season title if they yield a minimum of three points to the Badgers and Minnesota-Duluth sweeps St. Cloud State.
On the other hand, Wisconsin may not be able to alter its seeding enough to host a playoff series, but it will certainly want to continue its solid play and earn points against one of its fiercest rivals. Whether Minnesota faces more pressure with the title on the line is yet to be seen.
“I think it depends on the people on your team [if you feel pressure],” Eaves said. “I think you can look at it in a general sense, and you can project. But unless you know the dynamics within a locker room, heck, [Minnesota] may have the type of people that’ll play loose no matter what. So here I go again. We’re going to control what we can. And we’re playing pretty well right now. We’re going to go bang our drums and see what kind of noise we can make.”
Wisconsin does hold a recent edge when traveling to Mariucci Arena, with a 4-1-1 record in its last six games in Minneapolis. Freshman forward Joseph LaBate and sophomore defenseman Joe Faust are two Badgers that have contributed points during the Badgers’ three-game winning streak and offensive out-pouring, each tallying an assist – Faust’s fifth and LaBate’s 20th point of the season.
LaBate hails from Eagan, Minn., and as a freshman, he hasn’t had the chance to skate at Mariucci as a Badger, but recalls his first time visiting the storied arena.
“It’s going to be awesome,” LaBate said. “I remember the first time I ever went there I was with my dad and I was probably nine or eight years old and buying a knee hockey stick. I just remember watching how old the guys were and how big the guys were and just being amazed. So it’s going to be fun to go there and be able to play.”
The revelation of the Badgers’ offense during that streak makes this matchup even more intriguing. Scoring four goals in its last three wins – the longest such scoring streak since October – Wisconsin’s offense will have to continue to find ways to get the puck past Minnesota’s stalwart goaltender, Kent Patterson. The senior goaltender has started 56 straight games for the Gophers dating back to the 2010-11 season, and Patterson will aim to break his school-record of seven shutouts this season.
Faust, a Bloomington, Minn., native, is looking forward to the chance to be playing on his hometown rink and all the thrills that go along with it.
“It’s more exciting. I know a lot of people that go to school in Minnesota and my family’s close so they’ll all be there,” Faust said. “It’s just fun to be playing against kids that I know and in an atmosphere where I know a lot of people are watching. I would say it’s more exciting than anything and to have it be the last conference series of the year just puts that much more excitement into it. I’m looking forward to it.”
Kelly Erickson contributed to this article.