Not a lot seems to be going right for the Wisconsin men’s hockey team this season.
First, it lost a highly-touted freshman to ineligibility issues for 10 games. Then, top centerman Mark Zengerle broke his finger blocking a shot. And last week, during its second bye week of the season, assistant coach Bill Butters resigned from the team to pursue other passions. The Badgers are 1-4-1 overall and 1-2-1 in the WCHA, to boot.
But the team could care less at the moment as it heads to Mariucci Arena to face archrival No. 3 Minnesota (6-2-1, 3-2-1 WCHA).
“I feel like that’s something you guys are going to play up a little big,” junior forward Tyler Barnes said. “We’re here together. The guys in the room are the guys in the room. If people have to go for whatever reason or injuries, that’s something you have to deal with, just like life. We’re going to come together as a group. The guys in the room right now are the guys we want.”
During Wisconsin’s last outing – its home-opening series against Colorado College – it dropped both games, 5-4 in overtime in game one, and 3-0 in game two. Despite the sweep, the Badgers put up 59 shots on goal, showing their offense has some signs of life, especially in light of Zengerle’s injury.
The Badgers currently sit last in the conference as a scoring offense with 11 goals over six games, an average of 1.83 goals per game. But Wisconsin knows it has to keep drenching the net with shots if it has any hope of scoring.
“Shoot, that’s the biggest thing,” Barnes said. “Get pucks on the net and go to the net. When you’re in a slump, you’re not going to be looking for the pretty play.”
Scoring is certainly a concern, but if the Badgers’ recent track record at Minnesota is any indication of how well they will play this weekend, they won’t have as much to fear.
In its last eight games at Minnesota, Wisconsin is 5-2-1 and has split or won the last five series, splitting the last three. The last time the Badgers played in Minneapolis, Minnesota was on the cusp of winning the MacNaughton Cup and a trip to the Frozen Four. Friday night, Wisconsin spoiled the party with a 4-1 upset. Saturday night was a different story, but it was not until the third period that Minnesota claimed a 2-1 victory.
“I have no definitive answer,” head coach Mike Eaves said. “… Our kids enjoy playing there. It’s a great hockey atmosphere, it’s a great hockey town and we seem to play well there. I hope this weekend is no different.”
“I think there’s always a lot of passion involved in these games, it’s always really competitive,” said junior defenseman Joe Faust, a Bloomington, Minn., native. “Like you said, splits – it’s tough to win two games. Going up there, we take one game at a time.”
Regardless of any emotional factors, the Badgers are still squaring off with a top-five ranked team that has plenty of depth up front.
“They probably have the most depth at forward in our league in terms of ability and talent,” Eaves said at his Monday press conference. “… It’s more of what we see from them every year – their skating, their passing, their defense is – I think they’re finding out a little bit who they are … but up front, they have something that a lot of teams don’t have, and that’s a deep pool of talent in their forwards.”
The Gophers are led by junior forward Erik Haula, who has five goals and six assists for 11 points through nine games this season. But they also return three other forwards – Kyle Rau, Nick Bjugstad and Nate Schmidt – who each placed in the top 30 scorers from last season at No. 25, No. 27 and No. 30, respectively.
In order to slow down the Minnesota offense, Wisconsin feels it just has to do what it knows best.
“We have to play to our strengths,” Faust said. “I think in the (defensive) zone we can be a really solid team. We’ve got to keep blocking shots, which we’ve done this year, and play the body.”
As much as anyone can guess what may happen in this weekend’s Border Battle, the skaters feel it’s anyone’s game on any given night.
“It’s a great rivalry,” Barnes, an Eagan, Minn., native, said. “It’s a fun one to play in. It’s anyone’s game any night. It’s going to be a hard-fought battle and those ones are usually won in the trenches on rebounds and lucky bounces. We’re just going to come and bring some energy and play hard.”