Although Paul Bunyan’s Axe will not go to the winner, this weekend’s men’s hockey series between Wisconsin and Minnesota has a great deal at stake.
Trailing Minnesota by 10 points in the Big Ten standings, the third-place and 12th-ranked Badgers (14-8-2 overall, 5-4-1 Big Ten with 16 points) are looking to climb back into the conference title chase with six points on the line Thursday and Friday night at the Kohl Center with 10 games remaining in the regular season.
As if the battle for the first title in the inaugural year of Big Ten hockey wasn’t enough to add to the rivalry, the fact that the Golden Gophers (18-2-5, 8-0-2 with 26 points) are the No. 1 team in the country coming into Madison should certainly spark a higher level of intensity in a series that has been fairly quiet in recent years.
“In the games we’ve played them since I’ve been here as a coach, we haven’t had any big brawls. When I played them as a player we had brawls, so it was a little different,” Wisconsin assistant coach Gary Shuchuk, who played for UW from 1986-1990, said. “But it’s just one of those great rivalries where it’s bragging rights. Right now, they’re up two games on us and playing in this Big Ten. We have a chance to redeem ourselves.”
Those two games Shuchuk referred to were the first two games played this season between the Badgers and Gophers, which saw the Gophers sweep Wisconsin in Minneapolis Nov. 29 and 30.
However, the new alignment in the Big Ten that has only six teams allows the member schools to play each other in home-and-home series, giving Wisconsin a shot at revenge, something that often didn’t happen in the old Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
Though the teams did already play this season, it was the first conference matchup for both teams and early on in the season, meaning the two squads will have a different look about them come Thursday night, as Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves explained.
“The way they would have changed is the details in their systems play. It’ll be harder to find plays in their defensive zone coverage because they’ve had more reps and more game experience. Every part of their game their details will be better,” Eaves said, adding his team will be better in its systems play as well.
For Wisconsin, the changes are not just limited to the play on the ice, as there will be several changes to those who are on the ice, too. The biggest of those alterations will be the absence of Tyler Barnes, who sustained a shoulder injury two weekends ago against Ohio State. With Barnes on the sidelines for the second consecutive week, Eaves will have to shake up his forward lines once again.
Fortunately for Eaves, the changes in the lineups this week are due to getting Nic Kerdiles back from his shoulder injury after he missed six games and part of the game against Alaska-Anchorage when he initially got hurt.
“He’s high-level, skill player. He can skate like the wind. He has a great shot. He has great vision,” Shuchuk said. “Just inserting him into the lineup gives us a different dimension as a team as a whole. I like it when he’s playing because of that. He’s one of those hockey players that at any given moment he can score or cause a penalty with his speed, so he brings a different element into our lineup.”
Kerdiles will play wing on the first line with Mark Zengerle at center and Sean Little on the other wing, bumping Morgan Zulinick to the second line with Michael Mersch and Jefferson Dahl, encompassing the key line changes.
Despite the changes and the injury to Barnes, Wisconsin still has a great deal of experience with seven seniors in the starting lineup.
Minnesota, on the other hand, has a very balanced roster and a youthful one at that, with eight freshmen comprising the Gophers’ biggest class of players, freshmen who have been key to their success and top rank.
“I think that as a whole, how they’re having success is based on their freshman group. Their freshman group came along and they’re scoring a lot of goals for them. If they didn’t, I think they would have struggled,” Shuchuk said.
The eight Gopher freshmen have combined for 89 points including 36 goals, which is the second best mark in the country for a freshman class behind only Boston College. The Gopher offense has received contributions from all throughout the lineup, which has helped make Minnesota the fourth-best offensive attack in the country with a 3.65 goals per game average.
But the big reason why the Gophers are currently the top-ranked team in the country is that they’re not limited to relying on their offense. Minnesota allows the third-fewest goals per game in the country at 1.96, as sophomore goaltender Adam Wilcox ranks in the top 10 nationally in goals-against-average and save percentage.
With refined play through all three zones, the Gophers will certainly pose a big test for Wisconsin this weekend, but the intensity of the series in the past should hold up this weekend and make for two very competitive games.
“When you’re chasing the No. 1 team, there’s always a little extra fun to it,” Zengerle said.
“They’re No. 1. It’s on our ice, students are back and it’s just got every degree to be an exciting weekend. Our whole locker room just wants it to be [Thursday] night at 7:30 right now.”