The Gopher Hockey team goes into Madison this weekend as the hottest team in the Big Ten. However, a very improved Badger squad will look to cool them off as the two teams face off in round one of the annual Border Battle.
Minnesota comes into this weekend’s games against Wisconsin tied with Penn State for first place in the Big Ten. The Gophers got a big home sweep over Michigan last weekend, but will head into its second Big Ten road series of the season a bit shorthanded. Minnesota will be missing sophomore center Tommy Novak after he suffered what the Gophers are calling a “lower body injury” last Saturday against the Wolverines. Unfortunately for Novak and Minnesota he will miss the remainder of the season with what is rumored to be a torn ACL. Its a big loss for the Gophers as he had fit into the role of the second line center quite well for Minnesota, and now Gopher coach Don Lucia will need to juggle his lineups to find someone who can step into the middle of that second line, and also on the second power-play unit without too much disruption.
It appears the Gophers will give the first crack to senior Vinni Lettieri. Lettieri is coming off of his best game of the year last Saturday, recording a hat trick against the Wolverines. He has experience at center and started there earlier this year before he was moved back to the wing. He currently is the second leading scorer on the Gopher roster with 11 goals, and the hope is that his scoring touch will continue in a spot where Minnesota will need contributions on a nightly basis.
The Gophers will look to continue to succeed on special teams this weekend. Minnesota is 22-22 on the penalty kill during its current six game winning streak, while their power play has gone 8-26 over its last five games. Stopping a potent Badger power play featuring Minnesota native Grant Besse and Minnesota Wild first round draft pick Luke Kunin will be key to the Gophers success this weekend.
The Badgers are playing much better than they were a season ago, and much can be attributed to their new coaching staff. Wisconsin’s hire of former Badger Tony Granato to lead the program has been lauded my many, but even more importantly may be his hiring of his assistant coaches, Tony’s brother Don Granato, and Mark Osecki. Both coaches have extensive experience working in the Upper Midwest and are great recruiters.
Wisconsin is coming off of a sweep of Michigan State last weekend, and currently sits in third place in the Big Ten behind Minnesota and Penn State. Their leading scorer is Plymouth native Besse who has had a load of success against the Gophers in his three seasons with the Badgers. He had scored nine goals and has 12 assists in his last nine games against the Maroon and Gold. Meanwhile, the rest of his teammates have been picking up the scoring slack as well. The Badgers are averaging 3.61 goals per game this season, good enough for 6th in the nation. However, Minnesota is 5th in the nation at 3.8 goals per game. Its fairly obvious that the team with the better goaltending should control this weekends games.
Neither team has gotten consistent goaltending this season. Minnesota sophomore Eric Schierhorn has put on some amazing performances...but has also let in several way too easy goals. He is giving up 2.64 goals per game, an acceptable average, but his 89.5% save percentage must improve if Minnesota is to ride him deep into the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, the Badgers have two goalies who have been purely mediocre this season. Sophomore Matt Jurusik started the season as the #1 goalie for the Badgers, but after getting injured he lost his spot to freshman Jack Berry. However, Jurusik has been seeing action once again, and its probable that the two goaltenders will split the series against the Gophers. Both goalies have started nine games this season, but Berry has the much better statistics. His goals against average is over a goal lower than Jurusik’s at 2.46 compared to 3.72, and his save percentage is better as well at 89.4% compared to 86.5%. So one would assume Minnesota would see Berry on Friday night, but we shall have to see.
One thing that is for sure is that the Kohl Center will be rocking once again. After a few seasons of dwindling attendance, Wisconsin is once again getting raucous crowds out for Badger Hockey. In fact, according to Todd Milewski of the Wisconsin State Journal:
Looks like @BadgerMHockey is heading toward its 2 biggest home crowds so far this season. 11,300 sold for Friday, 13,300 for Saturday.— Todd Milewski (@ToddMilewski) January 19, 2017
When that many people show up to a Gopher-Badger game...things can get fun in a hurry.
The Gophers will look to keep pace with the new #1 team in the nation, Penn State. The Nittany Lions rose to the top spot in the weekly polls for the first time in their five year history as a DI program this week, and will get a tough test against Ohio State. The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions split a series two weeks ago in Columbus, but it should be a loud and crazy environment at a sold out Pegula Arena this weekend. Penn State will have a vested interest in the Border Battle games this weekend as well, as the Nittany Lions and Gophers will meet up for each squads next Big Ten series in two weeks at Mariucci. Both teams will play non-conference games in NHL arenas next week with Penn State taking on Princeton at Madison Square Garden, while the Gophers play in the North Star Cup at the X against UMD and either St. Cloud State or Bemidji State.
But this weekend’s games should be back to what Gopher and Badger fans expect when the two teams get together. It will be an open up and down affair, a far cry from the style of play the Badgers used to use under Mike Eaves. That should make the fans happy, and hopefully they will be even happier if the Gophers can pull off the road sweep on Hockey Day Minnesota.
HOW TO WATCH
#7 Minnesota Golden Gophers at Wisconsin Badgers
Where: Kohl Center, Madison, WI
When: 7:00 PM Friday; 5:00 PM Saturday
TV: Fox Sports North