Thursday, November 15, 2012

B1G Matchup Of The Week: Wisconsin at Minnesota

By Jessi Pierce

Not much needs to be said in either locker room to get these two rival teams pumped up for this weekend series. A historic border battle dating back to the 1960s, Minnesota and Wisconsin have met at center ice 262 times, with the Gophers holding the advantage 155-86-20 against the Badgers.

Bad blood between these teams comes natural and you can all but guarantee Mariucci will be packed when their not-always-friendly neighbors roll into town Friday night.

And it's Mariucci that has the real advantage in the games. Minnesota holds a 90-27-7 record at home against Wisconsin and is currently undefeated on their M-logoed ice, going 4-0-0 so far this season plus  a win streak at home that goes back two games into the 2011-12 season.

On paper, the No. 3 Gophers look like the better team. Off to a great start behind some solid goaltending by freshman, and this week's WCHA Rookie of the Week, Adam Wilcox and equal strength on the scoring end, Minnesota is 6-2-1 on the season. A fairly young Wisconsin team, missing some top players to injury and offseason drama (see more on that below), the  Badgers are just 1-4-1. If that's not enough, Minnesota has 31 goals tallied through nine games with 18 against — more than Wisconsin's 11 goals scored this season, a WCHA worst.

But Gopher players, and fans, know not to underestimate the Badgers and are smart enough to not call the sweep too early. Last year heading to the Kohl Center Minnesota was atop the national polls and yet only came away with a split after the Badgers took a big 4-1 win in the first game of the series. To cast even more reason why a tally in the win column can go either way: The Badgers are 5-2-1 over their past six games against Minnesota in Mariucci. No win is a guarantee; especially in this rivalry.

How the teams did last weekend: Minnesota is coming off a weekend at Alaska Anchorage where the Gophs snuck out three points, taking a 2-2 overtime draw on Saturday. Minnesota's power play unit looked unreal last weekend, accounting for five of the six total goals between Friday and Saturday. The Gopher's power play  now ranks third in the nation with .286 conversation on their chances with the man advantage. Wilcox also earned his second shutout of the season with a 4-0 victory over the Seawolves on Friday.

The Badgers had a bye this past weekend and are coming off a tough sweep by Colorado College in its home opener Nov. 2 and 3. A promising ray of light however, as four different players on Wisconsin scored in Friday's 5-4 overtime loss to the Tigers.

Ouch: The Badgers are a bit beat up and bruised, with junior forward Mark Zengerle still battling injury that came in the second period of the Nov. 2 game against CC. Zengerle led the team last year with 50 points — fourth in the nation — and 37 assists. There is no question he is missed on the ice. Another big hit for Wisconsin came when Nic Kerdiles was handed an unheard of yearlong suspension by the NCAA for an amateurism violation. Kerdiles, a highly touted forward entering his freshman year with the Badgers after playing with the U.S. National Team Development Program, appealed the NCAA ruling and was instead suspended for just 10 games, eligible to play Nov. 30 against Denver.

Despite the suspension and not being on the ice in Minnesota this weekend, Kerdiles already had a sneak peek of what the Gophers have to offer, suiting up with his former team when Minnesota hosted the U.S. U-18 team Oct. 26. Minnesota tied the Under-18 team 2-2.

For more on the Kerdiles eligibility situation, Chris Peters of United States of Hockey does a great job breaking it down and following it through to the end.

Players to watch: Wilcox is making the saves between the pipes for the Gophers no question, but the scoring prowess on Minnesota is almost unparalleled. They have three lines that can control the puck and bury it when the time comes. Kyle Rau, Erik Haula, Zach Budish, Seth Ambroz, Justin Holl, Ben Marshall.... take your pick, the Gophers have weapons on both the front and blue lines.

For Wisconsin junior forward Michael Mersch is stepping up in the absence of Zengerle, leading the Badger squad with four goals. Between the pipes sophomore Joel Rumpel is off to a shaky start, much like the rest of his team but with some help from defenseman John Ramage and Jake McCabe — both still needing to step up — it might take some of the pressure of the netminder and keep the puck out of the Wisconsin zone.

Like I noted last year, momentum in this series is always key. Whoever scores the first goal will most likely come out on top. Yet saying that, I have to be honest and the Minnesota side is heavily favored for obvious reason. It's going to be a tough one for the Badgers and I hope they make it a series worth watching.

Prediction: Minnesota with the sweep, Friday night score 5-2, Saturday 2-1.