Say what you want about the University of Minnesota hockey team, but they do not lack rivals.
With a sweep of the hated University of North Dakota barely in the rear view mirror, the 9-1-0 Gophers turn their focus this weekend to another border as they head east on Interstate 94 to Madison for a two game series with WCHA (and Big Ten) rival Wisconsin. Minnesota enters the weekend as the number one team in college hockey and have a target on their back after 2-0 and 3-2 wins last weekend.
However, there are players ready to step up to the challenge Goalie Kent Patterson was outstanding once again as the junior picked up his fifth shutout Friday. That tied a school record held by Rob Stauber and it is only November. Offensively, the Gophers have three of the top six scorers in the country in Erik Haula, Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau.
Rau especially has been a surprise and a shot in the arm for Minnesota. The Eden Prairie native leads all freshmen with 15 points (8 goals - 7 assists) and scored the winner against North Dakota Saturday night with 45.8 seconds remaining. What makes it even more remarkable is that for a 5'8", 172 lb player he scores a good amount of goals in front of the net.
The Badgers enter this weekend 4-5-1 (tied for 4th in the WCHA at 3-4-1) but have yet to find consistency. Wisconsin lost nine players from last season's team, including three early departures, and a few of them have found spots in the NHL. However, that has come at a price to Mike Eaves' team as the young club has traded quality wins - the Badgers also swept North Dakota at home - with losses. Earlier this year they were swept by Michigan Tech team who won 4 games last season.
Despite the losses, Wisconsin is still tough to beat at home. They are 4-2 so far this season at the Kohl Center and have made teams earn victories. If Minnesota has any ideas of taking a night off and coasting, they will be in for a long night. The Badgers' veteran defense is tough to beat and is led by junior Justin Schultz. Schultz, who leads all college defensemen with 14 points, has one of the best hockey IQs and skating skills in the WCHA. It may be too early in the season to say for certain, but so far he is a potential Hobey Baker candidate.
Between the pipes for Wisconsin are two freshmen goalies, Joel Rumpel and Landon Peterson. Both have been splitting the load so far this season with Peterson playing Friday and Rumpel playing Saturday. However, this weekend it seems that Eaves is switching the rotation around and Rumpel, who beat North Dakota earlier this season despite being out-shot 42-15, will start for the Badgers Friday. He has the better stats of the two - a .913 save percentage compared to Peterson's .875% and nearly 4 goals given up per game (including 7 to St. Cloud State last weekend) - but both goalies will have tough work against the Gophers' explosive offense.
One thing that Minnesota and coach Don Lucia would like to improve from last weekend is the power play. The Maroon and Gold went 1 for 14 last weekend with the man advantage and North Dakota's blue line was able to limit their opportunities and clear the puck. With the Badgers only 29-42 (69%) on the penalty kill, this seems to be a good weekend to get Minnesota's power play back on track
In the end, this weekend looks to be a Border Battle between Minnesota's offense and Wisconsin's defense. While the Badgers have a few good forwards - sophomore Mark Zenegerle had 36 points as a freshman and Tyler Barnes has five goals - they don't have the depth or firepower to win a shootout; especially with how well the Gophers' blue line and goalie has played. It's always tough to win on the road in the WCHA but with bragging rights and four points on the line, this should be a good series for Minnesota and Wisconsin fans alike.
Minnesota and Wisconsin square off for two games Friday and Saturday night. Both games start at 7 PM Central. Friday night's game is on Fox Sports North while Saturday night's game is on BTN.