The No. 1 Wisconsin men’s hockey team lifted a huge weight off its shoulders when it swept a series at North Dakota. But now, almost a month later, the Badgers have a chance to exorcise an even bigger demon when they travel to Minnesota.
Not one player on this year’s UW squad has ever experienced a victory at Mariucci Arena, the fourth-ranked Gophers’ home rink. In fact, the last time the Badgers beat Western Collegiate Hockey Association rival Minnesota in Minneapolis was February of 2000.
That is something that senior assistant captain Tom Gilbert wants to see change this weekend. The Bloomington, Minn. native would love to be able to have his family see him win a game in his home state against the Gophers before he graduates.
While the sweep of the Sioux was an exciting weekend, this weekend could be even sweeter, as the Badgers try to extend their nation-leading 12-game unbeaten streak.
“We’ve been waiting four years now for this, to at least take two or three points from Minnesota, in Minnesota” Gilbert said. “We know what kind of atmosphere it’s going to be and we’re looking to work really hard.”
But don’t take the defenseman the wrong way—while it would seem like even getting one victory at No. 4 Minnesota this weekend would be satisfying, especially for the seniors who will be getting their last chance, the team made it perfectly clear this week that it was heading into the border battle hunting for four points—nothing less.
“Every weekend we’re looking to win two games in the WCHA,” Gilbert said. “We’re never satisfied with a split, but we know what kind of skill level Minnesota’s got, and we won’t look by any of that. We know it’s going to be a battle.”
“To sweep Minnesota would even be more special than North Dakota because they’re our rival team and they’ve had our number the past couple years,” senior winger Ryan MacMurchy said. “That feeling in North Dakota was just a small part of what we want this weekend.”
Also on the line will be precious WCHA points. Wisconsin currently leads the league with a four-point advantage over Minnesota, so the Gophers could put themselves right back into the mix if their success over UW continues this weekend.
“We really want to go in and set the tone and make a statement this weekend,”
junior Jake Dowell said.
Standing in the way of that statement is yet another top-five team that is in the middle of a six-game unbeaten streak itself.
The Gophers have averaged more than 4.6 goals per game over that stretch and lead the league on the power play, converting more than 23 percent of the time on the man-advantage.
Then again, this will be their first time seeing UW junior goalie Brian Elliott, probably the hottest goaltender in the country at this point in the season.
Minnesota has been going with a platoon in net this season, usually giving junior Kellen Briggs the nod in the first game of the series and turning to freshman Jeff Frazee in the second game.
Briggs is 3-2-2 in league play, with an excellent .924 save percentage, while the rookie Frazee has lesser statistics (.888 save percentage), but has an unbeaten 3-0-0 record.
Also at the forefront is the first meeting between the two teams with Madison native Phil Kessel involved. The heavily-recruited Kessel chose Minnesota over Wisconsin and hasn’t been slow in making an impact in his freshman year.
The rookie is tied with UW sophomore Joe Pavelski for the scoring lead in WCHA contests with 15 points. Kessel has six goals and nine assists in 10 games thus far.
But the situation’s tension seems to have quelled and the Badgers will look at him as just another strong player.
“It’s something that we don’t think about anymore,” Gilbert said. “[We] just have to keep in mind that he’s just another player. They’ve got talented forwards all around.”
The Badgers have had their tests this season and so far have passed with flying colors. They’ve swept the Sioux and they’ve taken down two top-ranked teams on their way to their current impressive unbeaten streak, but this weekend will be a whole new situation.
“Mariucci is just a rink made for the Gophers—they play so well there,” Gilbert said. “To get four points in Minnesota would be something we’ve been working for since the beginning of the season and it would be a great way to end our first half.”
What: No. 1 Wisconsin (8-0-2 WCHA, 11-1-2 overall) at No. 4 Minnesota (6-2-2, 7-3-4)
When: Friday, Dec. 2 and Saturday, Dec. 3; 7 p.m.
Site: Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis
Broadcasts: Both games will be televised live on Fox Sports North. They can also be heard live on the radio on 1310 AM WIBA.
Series notes: Minnesota leads 142-75-15 all-time and 82-21-5 in Minneapolis. The Gophers have not lost to the Badgers at home in 10 straight games.