With Minnesota facing off against Wisconsin this weekend at Mariucci Arena, I took the opportunity to ask one of my favorite writers on the SB Nation network a few questions about the Gophers' opposition, Justin Schultz's case for winning the Hobey Baker and why Wisconsin has struggled on the road.
SBN Minnesota: First off, it would be fair to say this hasn't been a successful season for Wisconsin with the Badgers sitting in 9th place. Why do you think things went wrong? What positives are there to take away for next year?
Chuck Schwartz: Well, first of all I think that it shows the type of program that Wisconsin has built that this is considered by many arguably the worst season the Badgers have had since Mike Eaves took over the program 10 years ago, yet they are still in 22nd in the KRACH rankings out of 58.
In terms of what went wrong, it's kind of a myriad of things but most importantly they got caught with too many underclassmen. They have just one senior and four juniors and the lack of experience has shown. There's talent on the roster, and that is clear in splits with teams like Denver and Minnesota and an earlier sweep of North Dakota. The problem is that with so many young faces they simply have no consistency, and have a tough time putting together consistent efforts on the road.
The positives to take away are pretty evident to me. The team only loses one senior, as well as junior Justin Schultz to the NHL. So everyone coming back adding a year of experience should be a major step in the right direction for this club.
SBN Minnesota: Freshman goalie Joel Rumpel started both games against Minnesota in Madison but Mike Eaves has rotated Rumpel and fellow freshman goalie Landon Peterson for most of the season, including the last two weekends. Should that be something Minnesota fans expect to see this weekend?
Schwartz: Yeah, I would expect to see both this weekend. Rumpel had won the #1 job but was injured against Denver a few weeks ago and Peterson was inserted and played very well. I think it's safe to say that we'll see both as long as they continue to stop the puck.
SBN Minnesota: Justin Schultz was very impressive against Minnesota with two assists in the Badgers' Friday night win in Madison. His name has come in Hobey Baker discussions - do you think he deserves it? Why or why not?
Schwartz: I think he deserves to win the award because it's supposed to go to the best player in college hockey, and I'd be hard pressed to find many non biased parties to openly say that #6 for the Badgers isn't the best player in the country. It's amazing to me that he puts up the numbers that he does as a defenseman.
Andy Baggot from the Wisconsin State Journal wrote a good article the other day with some stats that put it in perspective for me. Schultz (remember he's a defenseman), would lead 53 of the 58 D-1 teams in scoring. Schultz has been on the ice for 65 of the 96 (68%) goals Wisconsin has scored this season. He's +12 for a team that has scored just 3 more goals than the opposition for the year, and has been on the ice for 24 goals scored on the power play, which doesn't count for +/- purposes.
To me, the argument that he doesn't deserve to win the award solely because his team might not make the NCAA tournament is ludicrous. I've yet to hear that argument against Colgate's Austin Smith, and Colgate (#34 in KRACH), is 12 spots behind the Badgers.
Remember that Matt Carle, who put up a stat line very similar to Schultz in his Hobey season did not make the NCAA tournament with his Denver club either.
SBN Minnesota: Besides Schultz, who are a few other players Gopher fans should keep an eye on?
Schwartz: Well, I think you are going to notice #9 Mark Zengerle a lot this weekend. On bigger ice surfaces he has a lot of time to work and that really suits his game. He's a play making center that can buy ice and give his teammates time and space to get themselves open and he's a wizard feeding the puck. He's third in the country in assists for a club that has yet to score 100 goals this season.
Additionally watch #25 Michael Mersch. The Sophomore winger has been playing with Zengerle lately and played well, but even before that change the rangy winger has showed flashes of why the L.A. Kings took him in the 4th round of the draft this summer.
SBN Minnesota: The Badgers head to Mariucci Arena on the heels of sweeping Bemidji State on the road but have only won one other road game this season. Is there any explanation for why Wisconsin has not played well away from the Kohl Center or is it just one of those things? Also do you think that it will affect the Badgers this weekend?
Schwartz: Well, playing well and winning can be two different things. I was at both games in Grand Forks and Wisconsin didn't play bad in either contest but simply didn't get the desired result. That's happened a few times this season. In Mankato Phil Cook stood on his head one night and shutout the Badgers.
As I had previously alluded to, one of the reasons they haven't been winning many games on the road is the consistency with a young lineup.
As for this weekend, I think the sweep in Bemidji last weekend is going to go a long ways in terms of confidence. This team knows it can go into hostile buildings and win games now. Before it was almost in their heads that they couldn't win on the road.
SBN Minnesota: Prediction time. Who do you see winning this weekend and why?
Schwartz: I think you can expect to see a young club with some fire in their belly's this weekend. This is obviously a rivalry weekend and I also think the team is sick and tired of hearing how bad they are on the road. Wisconsin is well aware that Minnesota can win the Cup this weekend and if you don't think that's going to play into their motivation, then you're nuts. There's no way that any player in that Badger locker room wants to see the Gophers parade the MacNaughton around in front of them.
However there is a reason that Minnesota is playing for a chance to win the Cup this weekend. I think the Gophers come out hard on Friday night and probably take it to the Badgers a little bit. Saturday night, on senior night, I think the Gophers take their foot off the gas pedal a little bit after clinching a share of the regular season title and the Badgers steal one at Mariucci.
Thank you Chuck for taking the time out to answer a few questions (as well as having me do the same over at Bucky's Fifth Quarter). Once again, be sure to follow him on Twitter and read his work at the Wisconsin SB Nation blog Bucky's Fifth Quarter.