A tough stretch gets even tougher for the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team (3-5, 1-1 Big Ten) as they welcome No. 5 University of Minnesota (5-3, 2-0) to the Kohl Center this weekend. It is a rematch of the 2021 Big Ten Championship game, a game Minnesota won 6-4.

Wisconsin is in the midst of an extremely tough stretch of their schedule that has had them matched up with St. Cloud State and Michigan. The Badgers did not fare particularly well in these four tough road games, finishing 1-3 and losing by three or more goals in all of their losses. All hope seemed to be lost for Wisconsin, but a big win last Friday in the last game of the road trip gave the team a much needed boost coming into a crucial home weekend against arch-rival Minnesota.

Friday night will be a “red out” at the Kohl Center and a near sellout crowd is expected. It will be a raucous weekend in Madison. Here is everything you need to know going into the biggest series of the year.

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Know your foe

Minnesota is good, really good. They are the number five team in America, and their roster is as good as any in the country. The Gophers are loaded at all three levels. They have one of the best offenses in America, their top pairing of Ryan Johnson and Brock Faber is arguably the best in college hockey and their goalie, Jack LaFontaine, won the Mike Richter Award as the nation’s top goaltender last year.

Despite all the talent, Minnesota is just 5-3 to start the year. While those three losses have come to good teams in St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth, they have been underwhelming to say the least.

Their superstar goaltender, Jack LaFontaine, has struggled early on, giving up nearly three goals per game. His positioning has been bad and he has looked just generally uncomfortable in the early season. But, he had his best series of the season last weekend against Notre Dame, allowing just three goals on 57 shots over two games. If LaFontaine is rounding into form, that is a scary sight for a Wisconsin offense that has really been struggling in the early season.

In addition to LaFontaine, the Gopher offense has not been as dominant as it should be. Outside of a 12 goal weekend in their first two games against Mercyhurst, they are averaging less than three goals per game. But, the talent is there, and if there is any team capable of finding their stride it is Minnesota. Their top line of McLaughlin-Walker-Brodzinski is stacked with three NHL draft picks and highly ranked prospects. They have combined for 11 goals and 25 points through eight games, and they can score at any moment. They are fast, strong and extremely dangerous. Wisconsin’s whittled down defenseman will have their hands full this weekend.

Minnesota is strong at all three levels of the game and full of high ranking NHL prospects at all positions. They are one of the most talented, and well coached teams in America and will provide a huge home test for the Badgers in what is sure to be an electric Kohl Center atmosphere.

What to watch for

Who gets the net: Wisconsin’s two goalie tandem with Cameron Rowe and Jared Moe was expected to be one of the best in college hockey. But unfortunately for Wisconsin, both have had their fair share of struggles early on. For the first three series of the year Rowe was the opening night starter. But, last weekend against Michigan, he lost his opening night job to Minnesota transfer Moe. Both played really well last weekend, giving up just five combined goals on 70 shots over the two games. Moe took the loss in game one, while Rowe was able to steal a big win in game two.

I believe Head Coach Tony Granato will stick with what worked last weekend and start Moe Friday and Rowe Saturday. It will be a great chance for Moe to get a little revenge against his old team. He spent two years at Minnesota and is certainly excited to play against them with his new team.

Injuries: Both sides have been decimated by injuries in the early season. Wisconsin has missed big defenseman Mike Vorlicky who has yet to skate in a game this season, and will remain out for the Badgers. In addition to Vorlicky, Wisconsin will be without their top defenseman Tyler Inamoto for the third straight series, as well as forward Owen Lindmark for the second straight weekend.

There is, however, some good news for the Badgers as it seems as though Michigan Tech transfer Carson Bantle is ready to make his Wisconsin debut. Bantle is listed at 6 foot 5 and his big body should make a difference for the struggling Badgers offense.

On the Minnesota side, they will be without senior forward Grant Cruikshank and freshman phenom Chaz Lucius. Cruikshank is a Colorado College transfer with two goals and one assist this season. He has been the Gophers’ primary second-line left winger and will be a big absence on the line alongside Jaxon Nelson and Aaron Huglen.

Lucius is a superstar, and a huge loss for Minnesota this weekend. He was the 18th overall pick in this year’s NHL draft by Winnipeg, and he has looked really good in some limited minutes for the Gophers. He has one goal and two assists in six games.

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Predictions

As much as I want to believe Wisconsin will compete this weekend, from what I have seen so far from the Badgers, I am just not sure that is possible. Their offense has been invisible all season, and facing the nation’s best goalie and an extremely talented defensive group will only magnify those struggles.

While Minnesota hasn’t been great to start the year either, they played their best hockey of the year last weekend against Notre Dame. They looked like the Minnesota team many expected to compete for a national title at the beginning of the year.

Wisconsin being without Inamoto again this weekend really hurts them. While the Kohl Center crowd will hopefully provide some boost to the boys in cardinal and white, Minnesota will simply be too much for an undermanned, struggling Wisconsin team. If the Badgers come out of this weekend with a split, that is a massive accomplishment. But a Minnesota sweep is the most likely outcome of this big weekend series.

Friday: 4-1 Minnesota

Saturday: 2-0 Minnesota