With only four series left in the regular season, crunch time is rapidly approaching for the Wisconsin men’s hockey team.
After sweeping Minnesota at home this past weekend, the Badgers (16-8-2 overall, 7-4-1 Big Ten with 22 points) trail the Gophers by only four points in the standings. Although the sweep put Wisconsin right back in the thick of the title chase, the Badgers still have plenty of work to do if they hope to take home the inaugural Big Ten crown, beginning with a crucial road series at Ohio State this weekend.
“For us, beating Minnesota won’t mean anything if we go [to Ohio State] and we don’t play well. We have to ride the wave with our games against Minnesota, go into Ohio State and show them that we can win on the road,” Wisconsin assistant Gary Shuchuck said.
Unfortunately, the road has not exactly been kind to Wisconsin so far this season, making the second series with the Buckeyes’ (14-9-3, 4-5-3) that much more imposing than the first time around at the Kohl Center.
In the first meeting between the teams just three weekends ago — the first-ever two-game series between the schools — the Badgers and Buckeyes split the two games, with Wisconsin winning the first 5-3 and Ohio State the finale by a score of 3-1.
This weekend Wisconsin will come into the games ranked even higher than the first matchup at No. 8 in the country, but that doesn’t change the fact the Badgers have struggled mightily on the road on the way to a measly 1-6-1 record away from the Kohl Center.
“It’s kind of weird because last year we were total road warriors and we sucked at home,” Shuchuck said of the Badgers’ 8-2-4 away record a year ago. “Now, it’s the exact opposite. The guys in the locker room know what they have to do on the road. We’re missing goals and bounces here and there.”
Ohio State’s Big Ten record might led one to believe that the Buckeyes are in the lower tier of the conference standings, but sit only five points behind Wisconsin despite three fewer wins.
What makes the Buckeyes so dangerous is their offense, which averages 3.5 goals a game, a mark that is tied for fifth-best in the country. The Ohio State offensive attack that also averages just more than 33 shots on goal a game is led by Hobey Baker candidate Ryan Dzingel. Dzingel not only leads the Big Ten in scoring with his 37 points, but he also is seventh in scoring in the Big Ten.
But as Wisconsin defenseman Joe Faust said in an interview after practice Wednesday, the Badgers can’t place too much focus on Dzingel and forget about the other players on the ice. Instead, the defensive effort by Wisconsin will focus on limiting the Buckeyes’ space and playing team defense, a “five as one” mentality as Faust termed it.
That effort will be spearheaded by Wisconsin goaltender Joel Rumpel, who is coming off an outstanding effort against Minnesota in which he stopped 59 of 61 shots, earning the Big Ten first star of the week award in the process.
“He was huge for us this past weekend. He’s just so consistent and not only did he make saves that he should have made but he made a few that had some people shaking their heads. That was huge for us. When we had a couple of breakdowns here and there he was backstopping us and it really helped,” Faust said.
As Badgers’ head coach Mike Eaves remarked, Rumpel isn’t just finally settling in after a slow start to begin the season after missing five games with an ankle injury.
“He’s made a quantum leap here. He’s taken the reins. We’ve talked about it. His natural abilities are that he’s calm, cool, collected. He’s a tall, big target. He’s a good athlete. Well now he’s learned to compete harder and he’s the details of his position and I think that’s why we’re seeing a rise in his play,” Eaves said.
“He’s reaching new levels.”
Offensively speaking for the Badgers, they will be greatly benefitted with the return of forward Tyler Barnes to the lineup this weekend, after he missed the last four games with a shoulder injury suffered in the series finale to Ohio State. Without Barnes the Badgers offense has struggled only scoring seven goals in those four games, but they were also without sophomore forward Nic Kerdiles for the first of those two games.
Kerdiles return was huge last weekend as he helped the Badgers to victory last Friday night with a goal and an assist against the Gophers. Now, with Barnes set to make his return, Wisconsin will have a complete lineup for the first time in over two months.
Not only should that benefit the Badgers’ offense, but it should make the Badgers a force to be reckoned with as they pursue their first road win since Nov. 16 against Miami.
“It’ s just a couple of mental mistakes on the road that have cost us games, a couple of bounces here and there that didn’t go our way. I think we’re close but when you look at our record, right now we’re a bunch of homers. We got to get that same mentality out on the road and hopefully we can start on Friday,” Shuchuk said.