The #2 ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey team heads home after a sweep of Ohio State to host the #11/12 ranked Wisconsin Badgers in a battle of the top two teams in the Big Ten this season. Wisconsin is one of just two teams to defeat Minnesota this season and matches up well with the Gophers. However, Minnesota is playing some of their best hockey of the season right now and with a sweep can open a huge eleven point gap on the Badgers in the Big Ten standings with eight games to play.
Minnesota went into Columbus and had no real trouble with the Buckeyes completing the four game season sweep of Ohio State with a 5-1 and 5-2 win. Jackson LaComb scored short handed goals in back to back games, and Sampo Ranta added to his second in the nation 12 goals on the season to keep the Gopher electric offense moving forward. Minnesota had scored 30 goals in their last four games and now lead the nation in scoring averaging 4.22 goals per game. The Gopher defense continues to be nearly as stout as the offense is exciting. Minnesota is allowing just 1.61 goals per game which is good enough for second in the nation. Add those two together and it’s fairly obvious why Minnesota is the #2 team in the nation.
Wisconsin comes into the series on a hot streak of their own. The Badgers are 6-2 in 2021 with losses to Minnesota and Penn State. The Badgers are having no problems putting the puck in the net either At 3,72 goals per game the Badgers are the 8th best scoring team in the nation and second in the Big Ten behind only the Gophers. Star sophomore Cole Caufield has scored a point in ten consecutive games and has ten of his NCAA leading 14 goals over that stretch as well. In a sweep of Michigan State last weekend Caufield scored seven points with four goals and three assists and earned the Big Ten First Star of the Week honors. Dylan Holloway is also on fire for Wisconsin. The sophomore has three goals and 11 assists in his last six games and was the Big Ten’s #2 Star of the Week last week. The Gophers have done a good job shutting down those two so far in their collegiate careers. Caufield has six points and just two goals in six games against the Gophers while Holloway has been held pointless thus far. If Minnesota wants to get that back breaking sweep, continuing that streak will be key.
Minnesota’s goaltending situation situation is simple, Jack LaFontaine will play both games this weekend for the Gophers. The senior is near the top of the nation in most statistical categories. LaFontaine leads all NCAA goalies with 13 wins, ranks second nationally in goals against average at 1.28, and ranks third nationally in save percentage at .948. For Wisconsin it has been a bit more of a mix. Robby Beydoun has been the #1 this far for the Badgers and looked great against Minnesota in the series opener in Madison making 34 saves and shutting down Minnesota for their first loss of the season. He has had other games where he has been less that stellar though and has just a 6-6 record with a 2.94 goals against average and a .912 save percentage. Freshman Cameron Rowe has come on as of late and has been splitting some series with Beydoun. he has not faced a team with an offense the caliber of the Gophers, but his numbers have been impressive with a 5-1 record, a 1.58 goals against average and a .946 save percentage. Penn State tagged him for three goals in fifteen minutes two weeks ago, but he bounced back against Michigan State last weekend earning a 4-1 win. Whether Tony Granato trusts him against the Gophers this weekend may depend on how Beydoun looks in Friday night’s opener.
One key to the weekend will be special teams. Minnesota has been impressive on the penalty kill this season ranking seventh in the country with a .891% kill rate. More importantly the Gophers have been disciplined as a team and lead the nation averaging only 5.7 penalty minutes per game. This will be critical against a Wisconsin power play that ranks #3 in the nation scoring at a 28.57% clip. Six of Caufield’s 14 goals on the season have been on the power play, so limiting his chances there will be an important part of the Gopher game plan.
Both teams really want to take home the majority of points this weekend. If Wisconsin can sweep the Gophers they would jump into first place in the conference. A Gopher sweep would put the Badgers 11 points back with eight games to play and make it really hard for them to claw out from that deficit. With Michigan the only other real threat in the conference other than these two, this weekend will have significant implications on what will happen the rest of the way, and hopefully when all is said and done the Gophers can come out of the weekend keeping their hot streak alive with a firm stronghold on the top of the Big Ten.
HOW TO WATCH:
#11/12 Wisconsin Badgers @ #2 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Where: 3M Arena at Mariucci, Minneapolis, MN
When: 7 PM Friday/Saturday
TV: Fox Sports North+/Fox Sports Wisconsin+/ Fox College Sports
Radio: 1130 AM/ 103.5 FM/ I Heart Radio App