After losing its first Big Ten game since late November this past weekend at the Kohl Center, the No. 9-ranked Wisconsin men’s hockey team will prepare for another task this coming weekend that it has not had to deal with for several months: playing on the road.
Coming off a series split with Ohio State, the Badgers (14-7-1 overall, 5-3-0 Big Ten) will head to Ann Arbor, Mich., this weekend for a critical Big Ten series with 12th-ranked Michigan — the first away series since Nov. 29 and 30 at Minnesota — the prospects of which will give the Badgers a nice change of pace, according to head coach Mike Eaves.
“I think guys might look forward to getting on the road,” Eaves said Monday in his weekly press conference. “It just simplifies your schedule. You get in, you practice, you eat, go back to the hotel. You chill with your buddies, your roommates, your teammates. You get up, you practice and you’ve got to eat, sleep and play hockey for two days.
“That in itself can be refreshing, as experience has told us. When you’re on the road a lot, it can wear you down. But the fact that we haven’t been on the road for a while, I think the guys will be excited to get out there and have that kind of schedule.”
Wisconsin, which leads Michigan (12-6-2, 4-2-0) by only three points — equivalent to one win — in the Big Ten standings, swept the Wolverines two weekends ago, but will be without at least one key piece come Friday night.
In the waning moments of Saturday night’s loss to the Buckeyes, senior forward Tyler Barnes crashed into the boards and did not return to play. In the press conference, Eaves confirmed Barnes will not play this weekend and listed his injury as week-to-week.
Despite that bad news, another key player, Nic Kerdiles, could make his return to the Badger lineup after being sidelined with a shoulder injury since Jan. 3. Eaves said he will bring Kerdiles along on the trip and make a game time decision as to whether he will actually play.
Regardless of whether or not Kerdiles plays against the Wolverines, Eaves has some choices to make as far as his forward lines are concerned, especially with his top forward line that included Barnes, Mark Zengerle and Morgan Zulinick.
Based on what has transpired in practice this week and what Eaves said in an interview with The Badger Herald Wednesday after practice, senior forward Sean Little looks to be the replacement for Barnes on the first line.
“He adds a little grit and a little hockey smarts with Mark and Morgan. I think he’ll open up ice for those guys. I think that that’s the plan right now and we’ll go from there,” Wisconsin assistant coach Gary Shuchuk said about Little’s new spot on the top line.
“I’m not saying Sean Little is like Tyler Barnes, but he’s willing to go into corners. He’s willing to be a forechecker and bang guys. I think that’s going to add an element to that line that it hasn’t had before. For now, it’ll be a good adjustment.”
Still, with the possibility that Kerdiles could be out again, the first road series in more than two months could present a unique challenge for the Badgers.
After being swept by Wisconsin Jan. 10 and 11, the Wolverines, like the Badgers, have only played one series since coming off a bye weekend on Jan. 17 and 18. But in that only series, Michigan completed a sweep of its own against archrival Michigan State, beating the Spartans at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit 2-1 Friday night and then 5-2 in East Lansing, Mich. Saturday night.
As the Wolverines have a fairly unreliable scoring offense that ranks fourth in the Big Ten out of six teams averaging 2.85 goals per game, their calling card rests in freshman goaltender Zach Nagelvoort. Nagelvoort did let in seven goals in the Wisconsin series, allowing Badger goaltender Joel Rumpel to surpass Nagelvoort for first in the league in goals-against-average.
However, Nagelvoort still holds the best league mark with a 93.5 save percentage and only trails Rumpel’s 1.95 GAA with his mark of 1.98.
While Michigan will most likely go with Nagelvoort in between the pipes, Wisconsin’s Rumpel should get the nod in net for the Badgers, as he had started five games in a row and played in 12 of the last 13 and leads the league in GAA.
With at least one key offensive threat out in Barnes and the possibility of Kerdiles being out again, Wisconsin may have to rely more on defense in the series against the Wolverines.
But the belief in the offense still remains and Wisconsin displayed that it could score in the first series even though Kerdiles was sidelined.
“Since the past couple of weekends they’ve been out—it definitely doesn’t help our team, but we’ve got enough depth at the forward position that we’re not too worried about it,” Little said.
The teams may be unfamiliar, meeting for the first time in Ann Arbor since 1980, but the new Big Ten alignment, which allows teams to play home-and-home series in the conference season, has forged and an already intense rivalry displayed in the first series.
That spark will give Wisconsin an exciting opportunity in a big-time hockey environment when it takes the ice Friday and Saturday at Yost Ice Arena.
“But the fact is, when you play four times, you’ve got an even shot to get it done. The rivalries are going to increase because of the fact that I mean, this works out really well. We had a spirited series, and now we’re getting right back at it. It’s just going to elevate it to another level,” Eaves said.
“And in the barn they play in — if I’m a college hockey fan, this is going to be on my calendar this weekend.”