I'm trying to think of a more clever way to describe the magnitude of this weekend's series between the Gophers and Badgers than saying "this one goes up to 11", but I'm not coming up with anything better or less cliched. I mean really, yes, this IS a huge weekend series for Gopher Hockey. Then again, any series is big this time of year. Add in the fact it's the last year of the WCHA and that raises it up a notch, and raise it another anytime Minnesota and Wisconsin get together. And to top it all off, the very last regular season meeting of these two old rivals as WCHA members won't be played at the Kohl Center or Mariucci on a Saturday night, but instead will be played in the great outdoors on a Sunday afternoon in a football stadium that is not located in either Minnesota or Wisconsin. Instead, these two future Big Ten hockey conference members will be showcased as the second part of a doubleheader in Chicago at Soldier Field in the Officemax Hockey City Classic.
The idea of outdoor hockey is clearly a fad that is yet to lose its luster. The NHL brought the idea to the mainstream with the Heritage Classic between Edmonton and Montreal a few years ago, then has followed it up with the Winter Classic on New Year's Day for the past few years when they've actually decided to play a full season. College hockey has taken the idea and ran with it, and why not? It's more money for the schools and more exposure for the game. Heck, did you know UNO and UND played an outdoor game last weekend in Omaha? Yeah me neither, but it happened and I'm sure the fans of both schools loved it- well ok not so much, but that's because they played in a baseball stadium instead of a football stadium like Soldier Field. While I'd like to see the U and Wisconsin play outdoors at TCF Bank Stadium or Lambeau, Soldier Field should be a cool backdrop and experience, even if I think it's a little strange that neither of these schools are from Chicago or the state of Illinois. As you no doubt heard and read and saw yesterday, the Gophers unveiled some sweet retro sweaters for the game...
While it will certainly be quite the spectacle, this isn't an exhibition game or one played at the beginning of the season. This and Friday night's tilt in Madison have huge implications for the WCHA playoff race and NCAA tourney seeding, and while I'm excited to see the Gophers and Badgers playing outdoors, Minnesota picking up a couple of victories this weekend is key. After their split with St Cloud State, Minnesota begins the weekend tied for third with UNO with 26 points, five back of top spot SCSU, one behind 2nd place UND, and just one ahead of 5th place Denver, MSU and Wisconsin who all have 25 points. Now, the Gophers do have two games in hand on everybody that matters (they have four on last place UAA but they don't matter at this point) but they need to make those extra games count and pick up points to stay in the hunt to defend the MacNaughton Cup they won last year as WCHA champs. Considering St Cloud's remaining schedule (@ CC, home Tech, @ Drunken Sconnies) the Gophers look to be in tough to make up that five point deficit considering their own schedule: after this weekend they host Duluth and Denver then finish up at Bemidji State. On paper the Gophers SHOULD sweep Duluth and BSU, but considering they've swept just one conference opponent all season, well...it's no gimme, for sure.
Also at stake is trying to stay in the top 3 for WCHA playoff seeding and hanging onto a #1 seed for the NCAA tourney. There's enough quality left on their schedule that Minnesota won't have to run the table or anything to keep a #1 seed, as they sit a strong 2nd in the all-important Pairwise Rankings. However, because #1 Quinnipiac's winning percentage against "Teams Under Consideration" is so high (a whopping 13-2-3), the Gophers basically have zero chance of catching them for #1 despite the fact the Gophers can count victories over FIVE schools in the top 12 (#3 BC, #6 UND, #8 SCSU, #10 MSU- yep that's not a typo- and #12 Notre Dame) and still have #12 Denver coming up, as well as the Badgers who are ranked 20th after a horrid start. Minnesota controls its own destinty here and doesn't need to win out, but at least three three-point weekends in the next four would be a huge help, and quite frankly for a team this talented with legitimate National Title aspirations, that shouldn't be out of the question at all. I know both CC and Duluth are having down seasons as both are under .500 and have negative goal differentials, but that top 3 seed in the WCHA's is SO important because it's not even scalable how much I'd rather see Tech, Bemidji or UAA come to Mariucci for the first round instead of UMD or CC.
So despite the spectacle and obvious distraction that the Hockey City Classic will be, the Gophers need to put it aside and take care of business and as we know all too well, that's never easy against Wisconsin. They split and tied in their two meetings earlier this year, and considering the situation I'd be fine with that result again this time around, especially when you factor in the Gophers are just 7-7-4 against the Badgers since the 2008-09 season. When's the last time Minnesota swept Wisconsin, you ask? November 16 and 17 of 2006 at Mariucci, and the last time they swept them on the road was the year before that in 2005-06 in a strange season where each team swept the other on the road.
When Minnesota saw them last in mid November the BADgers were awful, following up their one-point weekend with Minnesota by getting swept-AT HOME- by Minnesota State as they limped into a series with Denver November 30 at just 1-6-2. Instead of getting skated off the ice, Wisconsin took 3 points from the Pioneers and have lost just twice since then going 11-2-5 since getting swept by Mankato. Now, while that run includes some quality wins over Denver and #3 Miami of Ohio, and road sweeps of Minnesota State and UAA (ask the Gophers how tough it is to do that- because they didn't do it this year), they're also coming off a less than stellar showing against Bemidji where they hung onto win 3-2 and tied them the first night 2-2. And despite the increase in wins, they're still failing to score goals with much regularity as they're averaging just 2.23 goals per game in conference play, which is 10th of 12 teams, and in 22 WCHA games have scored more than 3 goals just four times. Their defense has been impressive, allowing just 2.18 per game, yet it's still harder to constantly try to win low scoring games, especially if you get down early. They're certainly not going to open it up on the Gophers so unfortunately for your viewing pleasure, expect mind-numbing defense and clogging of the neutral zone this weekend by UW, especially on what I expect to be smaller ice surfaces in Madison and Chicago. This is nothing new in the Gopher/Badger rivalry of late as Mike Eaves wants to grind things to a hault in a way that would make Jacques Lemaire squeel with glee, but for the rest of us who'd like to see entertaining hockey...yeah let's hope the outdoor spectacle and the team's cool vintage sweaters at least makes the esthetics pleasing.
That's not to say the Badgers aren't capable of scoring, as they do have some talent up front. They have just two players with more than 20 points this season in Jr forward Michael Mersch, who's one of the top goal scorers in the WCHA with 16 goals and also adds 7 assists, and senior Derek Lee whose numbers look just the opposite of Mershc's with just 3 goals but 17 assists. Watch out for freshman Nic Kerdiles, who sat for the first 10 games of the season because of an admittedly ridiculous NCAA suspension but has 13 points in 18 games, and as a 2nd round pick of Anaheim, has some real offensive skill. On defense sophomore Jake McCabe is one of the best in the country and captained Team USA to World Juniors gold back in January, and senior John Ramage isn't a big offensive threat but is about a steady as they come in his own end, and is the son of former NHLer and Badger Rob Ramage. In net, sophomore Landon Peterson has arguably been the WCHA's best during conference play as he's second in GAA at 2.01 and #1 in save % at .928.
For the Gophers, well, same tune different week. The split with SCSU last week was well earned, but SCSU was able to keep them in check for most of the weekend, including the first two periods Saturday night. When they played with desperation down 4-1 in the third, Minnesota came roaring back and the offense came to life. Special teams are always key, but they'll be especially so this weekend with Wisconsin wanting to slow things down/kill my will to live 5-on-5. The stats say Minnesota has an enormous advantage here as the Gophers are #1 in the WCHA in both power play AND penalty kill while the Drunken Sconnies appear especially liquored in similar opportunities, as despite their defensive prowess their PK is just seventh, and their PP is so much worse. If you want the biggest indicator of how much their offense is struggling, Sconnie is not even converting on 10% of their power plays. 10%!?! They have just seven goals in 71 attempts, which, I mean...that's bad. It is really, really difficult for a Division 1 hockey team to struggle that badly with a man advantage, and considering the Badgers are somehow still tied for fifth with a PP that bad? I'm not even mad- that's amazing (You ate the entire wheel of cheese?). While it would be perfectly horrible for UW's morbid power play to get back on track, this is still a sizeable advantage for Minnesota. Not only that, those power play chances- and considering Sconnie is tied for 2nd in the WCHA in penalty minutes there WILL be power play chances- for the Gophers will give them that rare opportunity to have some space and time to move the puck and get good shots from in close. If Minnesota is to get more than two points this weekend, I'd be surprised their special teams don't lead the way.
Friday night's game in Madison is at 7pm on FSN while Sunday afternoon's game in Chicago is at 330 on the Big Ten Network.