The No. 1 University of Wisconsin Badgers (15-0-1, 11-0-1 WCHA) are back home this weekend to take on their rivals, the No. 5 Minnesota Golden Gophers (12-4, 7-3).
The border battle at La Bahn Arena is sure to be one of the biggest matchups of the year, as the best rivals in college hockey are both ranked within the top five.
After a Thanksgiving weekend break, the Badgers came back home riding a prior successful weekend. At St. Paul, UW swept the St. Thomas Tommies, outscoring them by a combined 12–2 through two games.
Minnesota, on the other hand, was coming off a loss to No. 6 Colgate in the Smashville Showcase Championship. That loss snapped the Gophers’ 11-game winning streak and handed them their first non-conference loss in four years.
Both of these teams come into the weekend with two of the highest-scoring offenses in college hockey. Wisconsin averages five goals per game, which is the second-highest in the nation. Minnesota is not much worse, averaging 4.25 goals per game, which is fourth in the nation.
Similarly, both of these teams have been stellar defensively and in the crease. Wisconsin’s defense allows less than one goal per game, while Minnesota allows 1.9.
From a player perspective, both of these teams are stacked up and down the lineup. Wisconsin has been led by their top-line sophomores, Casey O’Brien and Makenna Webster. All season long, these two have done nothing but perform, and the Badgers expect that to continue in this weekend’s border battle.
O’Brien leads the nation in goals, scoring 16 in 16 games. That absurd number is seconded by Webster’s goal-scoring performance throughout the season. She has 14 goals, which is second in the nation.
You might be wondering who has the third-most goals in the nation this year — that bronze medal belongs to Minnesota’s star senior Taylor Heise, who has 13 of them.
Though both of these offenses are stellar, they both might have trouble scoring against two of the best goalies in the nation. Wisconsin’s Kennedy Blair has been nothing short of lights out all season long. Her 0.92 goals-against average is fourth-best in the nation, and she has five shutouts this year to go along with it.
For Minnesota, all three of their goalies have been splitting starts throughout the season, and all three have played at a very high level.
We’ll start with graduate student Lauren Bench. Through six starts this season, Bench has sported a 2.05 goals-against average and 0.921 save percentage.
Freshman Skylar Vetter has had five starts this season and has worked her way to a 1.94 goals-against average and 0.913 save percentage.
Lastly, junior Makayla Pahl has had five starts this season. She has a team-leading 1.70 goals-against average, and 0.916 save percentage.
No matter which goalie Minnesota throws out on the ice, Wisconsin will be challenged to get the puck in the back of the net.
One final note — Wisconsin has gone undefeated against Minnesota in their last eight games, going 6-0-2 in those matchups. The Badgers are also 10-3-2 in their last 15 games against the Gophers. Even with the recent wins for Wisconsin, Minnesota has an all-time 53-44-13 record against Wisconsin.
Keys to the game
Stay out of the penalty box
Though Wisconsin is fairly disciplined in terms of giving up penalties, Minnesota is not. The Badgers have given up 38 penalties total this year, while the Gophers have given up 62.
Wisconsin’s power-play percentage is 11th in the country, while Minnesota’s is ninth. The ultimate goal for these teams has got to be to stay out of the penalty box, otherwise, their opponent might take advantage.
Another thing worth noting — Minnesota already has three short-handed goals this season, which is second-most in the nation.
Get going early
As mentioned above, both of these teams are extremely hard to score off, and both do a great job of holding their leads. Wisconsin is second in the nation in shutouts with six this, while Minnesota has three.
With both of these stellar defenses expected to play strong, the first goal could be the game-winner.