The Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey team heads into Madison for a Border Battle series against the Wisconsin Badgers this weekend. Both teams really could use a good weekend to get a better hold on a potential home ice hosting spot in the Big Ten Tournament, and to either gain more of a stranglehold on an at-large NCAA berth in the Gophers case, or to get back into the discussion in Wisconsin’s case. In any case, this weekend could have beneficial or dire effects on each teams postseason hopes. I discussed the NCAA Tournament implications earlier in the week.
The Gophers come into the weekend in sixth place in the Big Ten standings with 23 points. Meanwhile the Badgers are in third place with 28 points. But, and its a big but, the Gophers hold two games in hand on the Badgers, as well as on fourth place Michigan with 27 points, and fifth place Penn State with 25 points. This weekend could go a long way into determining who is in better position for those last two home ice spots in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. With the Nittany Lions on bye this week, and Michigan playing at Michigan State on Friday before the teams play at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on Saturday there could be a lot of moving and shaking in the Big Ten standings but the time Sunday rolls around.
After this weekend, the Gophers will still have two games in hand against the Badgers and Wolverines. Those two teams will have only one Big Ten series left this season..and neither will be easy. Wisconsin ends the season in Columbus at second place Ohio State, while Michigan next weekend ends their season with a home and home against first place Notre Dame. The Gophers host Ohio State next week before finishing the season at Penn State. The Nittany Lions may have the “easiest” schedule left with a series at Michigan State next week before the aforementioned series hosting the Gophers. We will know a lot more after this upcoming weekend, but there is a very good chance whether or not the Gophers can get one of the last home ice sports will come down to that final series in Pennsylvania.
As for this weekend, it will be a bit of a unique situation for the Badgers. Their head coach Tony Granato will not be on the bench as he is across the globe coaching the US Olympic Hockey Team in PyeongChang. What affect that has on the Badgers play is definitely up for debate. What is not up for debate is that the Badgers have a bit of a goaltending quandary. Sophomore Jack berry had started five games in a row before losing to Michigan last Friday night. The badgers went back to transfer senior Kyle Hayton on Saturday night and he picked up the win in a 4-2 victory over the Wolverines. Hayton was supposed to be the #1 goalie for this team, but he has not played well for the Badgers at all this season. I’m guessing both goalies will get a game against Minnesota this weekend, but I honestly have no idea.
The Gophers also have a bit of a question in net. Prior to their bye week last week, Minnesota started sophomore Mat Robson in both games of a home series against #1 Notre Dame. Robson impressed in a 1-0 shutout win on Friday but could not keep it up in a 4-1 loss on Saturday. Earlier this week Gopher assistant coach Mike Guentzel seemed to hint that Eric Schierhorn would get at least one game in net this weekend as he has historically performed well in the Kohl Center. Whomever the goalie may be, with the recent scoring woes Minnesota has had, they will need to be sharp.
The Gophers come into the weekend having only scored four goals in their last three games. That won’t cut it this weekend against a Wisconsin team that is averaging 3.25 goals per game. Minnesota will need to shut down Ryan Wagner and Trent Frederic. They rank one and two in points and goals on the season for the Badgers, and Frederic especially punished Minnesota with a goal and an assist in their 3-2 win over the Gophers at Mariucci.
Meanwhile, the Gophers need freshman phenom Casey Mittelstadt to stay hot. He has a three game point streak and is tied for the team lead with 22 points. It would be great to see him have an impact against the hated Badgers like another freshman phenom did in Madison 12 years ago.
Minnesota doesn’t need a sweep. It would be really really good if they could get one, but they don’t need one. They do NEED at least a split this weekend to keep themselves in a decent position for the postseason. I think its achievable, and frankly if they don’t get it it should be another indictment on this team. They have the ability...now they just need to go out and do it. Lets hope they can.
HOW TO WATCH
#12/9 Minnesota Golden Gophers at #17 Wisconsin Badgers
Where: Kohl Center, Madison, Wisconsin
When: 8:00 Friday/ 7:00 Saturday
TV: BTN Friday / FSN+ Saturday
Radio: 1130 AM, 103.5 FM IHeart Radio App