The #1 ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers men’s hockey team goes from one fierce rivalry to another this weekend as they open up Big Ten conference play by hosting their rivals to the east the #14 ranked Wisconsin Badgers at 3M Arena at Mariucci. The series is being played Thursday/Friday this weekend to avoid conflicts with Gopher football’s home game against Michigan State on Saturday. Minnesota will look to improve on last week’s result a split with #5 North Dakota in Grand Forks.
Minnesota remains ranked #1 in the nation after last weekend’s split in Grand Forks. Minnesota was shorthanded still missing Mike Koster and Mason Nevers from their lineup but got a huge weekend from 5th year senior goalie Justen Close. Close made 57 saves on 59 shots over the weekend including 25 in a shutout in a 4-0 win on Friday night. Including his previous shutout against St. Thomas, Close had a scoreless streak of 153 minutes, 58 seconds snapped following a goal in the second period Saturday. For his efforts he was named the Big Ten’s #1 Star of the Week making it back to back weeks with a Gopher in the top spot after Jimmy Snuggerud was honored the week before.
Snuggerud added a goal and an assist in Friday’s win over the Fighting Hawks. Brody Lamb, Oliver Moore, Bryce Brodzynski and Jaxon Nelson all lit the lamp in the series.
The Badgers come in after a sweep in Houghton of then #17 Michigan Tech. The badgers picked up 4-2 and 5-2 wins over the Huskies with Lyle McClellan picking up both wins in goal. So far this season McClellan has been sharp starting all six games for Wisconsin and going 5-1 with a 1.49 goals against average and a .935 save percentage. Mathieu De St. Phalle leads Wisconsin with seven points on the season and has a pair of goals. Former Minnesota recruit Cruz Lucius leads the Badgers with three goals on the season. Wisconsin’s 5-1 record is their best season start since the 2004-05 season.
The biggest addition to Wisconsin this season has been the new coaching staff. Gone is former Badger star Tony Granato and in is former Minnesota State head coach Mike Hastings. Hastings takes over a Badger program that had talent, but just couldn’t put it all together. His defensive style plus better players will make the Badgers one of the tougher teams in the near future and has worked already early in the season as they have allowed just nine goals in six games thus far.
Hastings will try and turn around the Badgers’ fate against Minnesota in recent seasons. Minnesota has a 183-101-24 all-time series lead and has won seven of their last nine over Wisconsin. A season ago the Gophers went 3-1 against Wisconsin outscoring the Badgers 18-9 in the four games. However the last two times a #1 ranked Gopher team faced off against the Badgers, Wisconsin earned a split though both series were in Madison and not Minneapolis.
Both teams will be dealing with injuries again this weekend. Minnesota is expected to see Mason Nevers return to the lineup after he suffered a shoulder injury against St. Thomas, but will still be missing senior defenseman Mike Koster for at least another week according to Gopher head coach Bob Motzko. Minnesota also will likely be missing freshman defenseman Max Ruud this weekend after he was hurt in Saturday’s game at North Dakota. That leaves Minnesota with just six healthy defensemen including true freshman Axel Begley who did not see much ice time against the Fighting Hawks and will now be needed to skate a normal shift. Minnesota also gets freshman goalie Nathan Airey back from his injury giving the Gophers another backup option behind Justen Close—not that Motzko has any plans to use him anytime soon.
This is weekend two of four in a row that could be classified as rivalry weekends for Minnesota. After last weekends series in Grand Forks and this one against the Badgers, Minnesota faces their top in-state rival Minnesota-Duluth in a home and home series before heading out to their most heated recent rival for their first road Big Ten series against the Michigan Wolverines.
The Big Ten as a whole once again is showing that they are one of the toughest conferences in the nation as six of the seven teams are ranked in the top 16 of the country. Only Notre Dame is unranked and they have a win against what was the #1 team in the nation in Boston University. Minnesota will see their first test of the conference’s power this weekend and will hope to send the Badgers packing Friday night to a chorus of (4 East chants from the Gopher student section as the Battle Hymn rings out.
HOW TO WATCH:
#14/18 Wisconsin Badgers @ #1 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Where: 3M Arena at Mariucci, Minneapolis, Minnesota
When: 8 PM Thursday/ Friday
TV: Big Ten Network
Stream: Fox Sports App