With all the excitement of Gopher football getting bowl eligible and Gopher hoops playing actual Division 1 opponents, let's not forget it's rivalry week for the hockey team as they take on Wisconsin this weekend. The Gophers and Badgers have met 261 times, with Minnesota leading the series 154-87-20 (Wikipedia would never lie, right?) in one of college hockey's best and oldest rivalries (the only two schools the Gophers have played more than Wisconsin? 289 times against the North Dakota Fighting Whioux and I bet you'll never guess who's #2 on that list, because I couldn't) which usually features two of college hockey's best programs. Key word there being usually. While Minnesota is hopefully climbing out of the malaise they fell into from 2008-2011, the Badgers have fallen off since a Frozen Four finals appearance in 2010, as last season they missed both the NCAA tourney and the WCHA Final Five, and so far in 2012 have won just one game in six tries.
Not that Gopher fans should get too excited for Minnesota domination, as last year the Gophers were the far better team on paper than-as GoAUpher would call them- the "Skunks Wearing Popcorn Boxes" yet the teams split their four games 2-2. Again this season Minnesota looks significantly better on paper thus far as through their first nine games they're 6-2-1 with 31 goals for, 18 against, and are ranked third in the country in the national polls. The Badgers are just 1-4-1 through six games with just 11 goals scored (a WCHA worst 1.83 goals per game), 16 goals against (2.67 average is middle of the pack, tied for sixth in the conference), and aren't anywhere close to being ranked in the polls. While this looks like what should be a four point weekend for the Gophers, and there's no doubt they're better on paper, there's a few things to look at here besides the usual "throw out the records it's a rivalry game" caveat.
The Gophers might be ranked #3 in the polls, but they're just 13th nationally in the all-important Pairwise Rankings, which help decide the at-large berths in the NCAA tournament. While it's still very early in the season and nothing to get too worried about yet, the reason Minnesota is down in the Pairwise is that while they've won some games, they haven't really played anybody yet, and since their opening-weekend dismantling of Michigan State, they haven't played especially well either. Of the schools Minnesota has played thus far (MSU, Tech, Canisius, Minnesota State and CUAA) only the Seawolves are ranked in the top 31 of the Pairwise, and they're scraping the bottom right now at 29th. While the Badgers haven't won much so far, they have played somebody, including Northern Michigan (#28 in the Pairwise) and last weekend against Colorado College (7th in the Pairwise), where the Badgers went to OT before losing 5-4 then got shutout the next night. Their only points on the season came up at Duluth with a win and a tie, a feat that looked impressive at the time, but is getting less and less so as the Bulldogs are just 1-1-6 so far.
The other concerning thing is that Wisconsin's stagnant offense might be coming around. Andy Johnson of SB Nation's Bucky's 5th Quarter recently had himself a film session, breaking down UW's new forecheck in their 5-4 OT loss to Colorado College. What he found surprised him, as before that he had been against the Badgers' new 1-1-3 forecheck because it had, you know, sucked. Andy surmised that this new forecheck is much more aggressive than what Wisconsin had done in the past, ideally putting much more pressure on the opposition's defensemen when they dump the puck into the zone and go get it. They've been slow to learn the new system, but seem to be picking it up better, and while the goals haven't increased yet, the number of shots per game has:
In the first series of the season vs Northern Michigan, Wisconsin recorded 40 shots. In a road series vs Minnesota-Duluth, Wisconsin increased its shot output to 47. Two weeks ago vs CC, UW hit the 50-shot plateau for the first time this season, recording 59 on the weekend.
So will this be the weekend the Badger offense breaks out and starts turning those shots into goals? Let's hope not. For one thing their top scorer, center Mark Zengerle, is out four to six weeks with a broken finger, and it's going to mean some line juggling for Wisconsin. The other is that Minnesota's defense and goaltending have been pretty stout as they have allowed the second fewest goals in the WCHA thus far (an average of just two against per game), and Adam Wilcox's 1.58 GAA is tops in the league and his .924 save percentage is 4th best. Wilcox is also the reigning WCHA Rookie of the Week after recording a shutout and allowing just two goals last weekend against UAA. Not that there was much doubt who the starter was, but according to Michael Russo backup Michael Shirbrowski will be out at least a couple of weeks with an undisclosed injury, so it looks like it'll be All Adam All the Time at least until December.
The Gopher defense will likely see the most pressure it's seen all season, but a strength of most of the D-men is supposed to be skating and puck-handling, so I like their chances to minimize coughing it up in their own end, and get the puck out of the zone in transition to the offense. And that's where this one will get decided. The star-studded Gopher offense needs to get it going at full-strength. They have a world of talent up front, but the past couple of weekends they've been living off their power play, which is always dangerous. Sure, Sconnie has the second worst penalty kill in the league right now, but scoring five-on-five shouldn't me as much of an issue as it's been lately with all the talent the Gophers have.
The hope was that winger Sam Warning would be back healthy for this weekend (or close to it at least) and ready to go so that the Gophs can go back to their normal top three lines that started the season so strongly. But in that same Russo piece head coach Don Lucia confirmed Warning won't play this weekend:
“He’s out this weekend, so he’s week by week. More than likely he won’t play next weekend either, and then we’ll have to make a decision whether he’ll be back for those next two weeks or do we just shut him down ‘til Christmas.”
The offense hasn't been the same without him, but there should be more than enough talent here to make up for the loss of one second-line winger. Still, because of the aforementioned 1-1-3, Lucia told Russo we won't be seeing a lot of wide open hockey against the Badgers:
“...Now, this weekend is going to be hard because they’re playing -- unless they’ve changed the last two weeks – a 1-1-3. So we’re going to see three guys skating backwards all night long, so it’s not like we’re going to get odd-man rushes. We’re not. So you’ve got to try to grind it out and win low-scoring games.”
Both games are at Mariucci this weekend with Friday night's opener at 7:07 on FSN, and Saturday night's game starting at 8:07 on Big Ten Network. Their next series against Wisconsin comes February 15th and 17th: the 15th will be a Friday night game at the Kohl Center in Madison while the 17th will be outdoors at Soldier Field on a Sunday afternoon as part of a double-header with Notre Dame and Miami of Ohio. A lot will have changed by February in the college hockey landscape, but for this weekend, the Gophers are the better team entering the weekend. We'll see if that's still true at the end of it.