The Gopher Hockey team is riding high coming off of its most impressive sweep of the season at Penn State last weekend and will face Wisconsin in the most important series between the two rivals in several years. The Gophers can all but lock up their their fourth consecutive Big Ten regular season Championship and NCAA record sixth overall regular season championship with a sweep. Meanwhile, if the Badgers can sweep Minnesota, they will find themselves in the drivers seat in the Big Ten with four games remaining.
Minnesota got their most improbable win of the season last Saturday in Hockey Valley. After Tyler Sheehy tied the game at two with just over two minutes remaining in the game, Penn State would retake the lead on a Denis Smirnov penalty shot with 1:33 left in the third period. As time would down and it appeared the Nittany Lions would hang on, they iced the puck with seven seconds left. That would end up being a huge mistake as Taylor Camaratta would win the ensuing faceoff back to Justin Kloos who ripped a wrister top corner over Peyton Jones to tie the game at three with 3.5 seconds left. Minnesota would finish off the Nittany Lions in OT when Kloos found Rem Pitlick who on his only shot of the game did not miss.
After all that drama you could see the Gophers having a let down weekend this weekend, but with the rival Badgers in town, and first place in the Big Ten on the line, its quite unlikely. But the Gophers know this will not be an easy series. Both Minnesota and Wisconsin come into the weekend 9-3 since the holiday break. The Badgers have keep pace with Minnesota in the Big Ten standings and are just three points back with six games to play. The teams split a pair of games in Madison in January with the Gophers winning 4-3 in overtime on a Kloos winner Friday night before the Badgers struck back 5-3 on Saturday. The weekend series will be a battle of one of the best home teams in the Big Ten against one of the best road teams. Minnesota is 9-2-1 this season at Mariucci Arena and have won their last six. Meanwhile, the Badgers are 7-2 on the road this season. Something has to give.
As always for Minnesota, how their weekend will go will be directly related to the play of Eric Schierhorn. With the aid of the shot on goal happy Penn State statistics staff, Schierhorn set his career high in saves twice last weekend, 40 on Friday night and another 42 on Saturday. The Badgers were happy to pepper him with pucks and see what would happen back in Madison, so you will expect to see more of the same this weekend. The Badgers do have several deadly goal scorers on their roster. Sophomore forward Luke Kunin, the Minnesota Wild’s first round draft pick last season has 19 goals on the year to lead the Badgers. Meanwhile, another first round pick, Trent Frederick is getting hot at the right time for Wisconsin. He has a current six game point streak and has points in eleven of his last twelve games. Over the last six games he has scored seven goals, and was the Big Ten’s #2 Star of the Week last week. He is second in scoring on the team behind Kunin. While he is in a twelve game scoring slump, Minnesota will also have to respect senior Grant Besse. The Plymouth, MN native has been a bit of a Gopher killer over his career entering the weekend with nine goals and twelve points in his last eleven games against MInnesota. However, Besse was kept off the score sheet entirely in Madison.
Another big reason for the Badgers rise has been the play of their goalies. Freshman Jack Berry has played Friday nights and sophomore Matt Juruski has played Saturday nights since the start of 2017. Berry has a 4-2 record with 2.66 goals against average and a 90.8 save percentage in 2017, while Jurusik has been even better with a 5-1 record, 2.97 goals against average and 91.0 save percentage.
The Gophers will look to test both Badger goalies with their offensive firepower. They lead all NCAA teams with 83 points in six games in the Month of February. Their 30 goals in the month is #2 in the nation behind only Harvard’s 31. Tyler Sheehy remains hot leading the Big Ten in scoring and is 8th in the nation with 46 points. He has four straight multi-point games and is looking to be the first Gopher to break the 50 point mark since Eric Haula in 2012-13. Minnesota continues to shine on the power-play ranking #4 in the nation at 26.9%. However, Wisconsin has the #5 penalty kill in the country at 87%, so it will not be easy for Minnesota to keep up its pace. But, if they can it will be one big advantage in a weekend where any little thing could make the difference. It could be a high scoring affair as Minnesota is #4 in the nation with 3.97 goals per game and Wisconsin is #6 at 3.75. It will be up the teams respective goalies to come out and win a game for their team.
This weekends games will also have major NCAA Tournament implications. Wisconsin needs wins badly to get on the right side of the bubble, and according to collegehockeyranked.com Wisconsin has a huge opportunity this weekend. The Badgers are currently ranked #20 in the Pairwise, but with a sweep of MInnesota could jump as high as #9.
Meanwhile the Gophers sit at #4 in the Pairwise and a sweep could help MInnesota lock down a #1 NCAA Tournament seed. Thankfully, one loss or even getting swept shouldn’t hurt Minnesota too much— it appears even getting swept will only drop the Gophers to sixth or seventh.
MInnesota just needs to take care of business this weekend and they can clinch the Big Ten title in Ann Arbor next week. But, if Wisconsin does take it to Minnesota, the Gophers still have plenty of time and a significantly easier schedule in the last four games of the season. Either way this weekend is shaping up into a great Border Battle, and should have Mariucci rocking.
HOW TO WATCH
#19 Wisconsin Badgers @ #4 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Where: Mariucci Arena—Minneapolis, MN
When: 7:00 PM Friday/Saturday
TV: Fox Sports Net Plus
Radio: 1500 ESPN