University of Minnesota defenseman Nate Schmidt - Minnesota Athletics
The #2 Gophers and Badgers play a Friday-Sunday series in both Madison, Wisconsin and Chicago, Illinois (outdoors at Soldier Field) that has serious WCHA ramifications.
It's easy with all the attention given to Sunday's outdoor to overlook the fact that #2 Minnesota (19-5-4, 11-5-4 WCHA) and Wisconsin (12-9-7, 9-6-7 WCHA) meet Friday in Madison first.
Just don't expect the Gophers to do so.
This weekend features both a first and last in the long-standing rivalry between Minnesota and the Badgers. For the first time in the modern era the Gophers will play outdoors when the two teams take their feud across the border to Chicago's Soldier Field. It's the third time in eight seasons that Wisconsin, who hosted games at Lambeau Field and Camp Randall Stadium, will be outside but their first against a conference foe.
At the same time, the series will be the final time the two teams play each other in the WCHA before Minnesota and Wisconsin join Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State in the Big Ten hockey conference next season. But before we get to there or even Sunday's outdoor game - played as the second half of the Hockey City Classic doubleheader with Miami-Notre Dame - there is the matter of four points on the line.
"It has been quite a bit of emphasis on it all week. Our goal has been to come out and make sure we get Friday night," Gopher junior defenseman Mark Alt said (Philadelphia Flyers). "That's what we've been told and that's our focus.
"But definitely still in the back of our mind we're excited for the weekend."
Wisconsin enters the weekend coming off of a 3 point weekend against Bemidji State.The Badgers have come a long way from their 1-7-2 start, which includes a tie and loss to Minnesota in early November, and currently find themselves in a three-way tie for fifth. Getting points against a team ahead of them could be the difference between Wisconsin having home ice and playing on the road in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
One reason for the Badgers' success has been their resilience following early injuries and a ten-game suspension to freshman Nic Kerdiles (Anaheim Ducks). Kerdiles' return coincided with an 11 game unbeaten streak and the freshman forward has 13 points (4G-9A) in 18 games. More importantly, having Kerdiles and junior Mark Zengerle healthy gives the team a solid top-six that compliments 16-goal scorer Michael Mersch.
Mersch, a Los Angeles Kings draft pick, scored 2 goals in the November tie against the Gophers. He'll also have home-ice advantage Sunday (or as much as anyone can have in an artificial rink) growing up 15 miles from Chicago.
The Badgers are relatively healthy and got back forward Derek Lee last Saturday after missing three games. They will be likely be without Morgan Zulinick, who continues to work his back from a thigh injury suffered in November. That's the biggest injury issue with the Gophers being healthy and getting through last weekend unscathed.
Minnesota, meanwhile, has a chance to get within one point of WCHA-leading St. Cloud State after splitting a two-game series with the Huskies. Following a 4-2 win Friday night, the Gophers fell behind 4-1 in the third period before a late comeback made it 4-3. Those two lost points cost them. With both St. Cloud State and second-place North Dakota idle, Minnesota can make up ground against the Badgers yet not overtake.
"This is our weekend to catch up," said head coach Don Lucia, whose team is finishing a five-game road trip. "Those games in hand are great but you still got to win those games in hand too."
The Gophers have had their share of contributions this season with five players scoring more than 25 points for the nation's highest-scoring offense. However, no one is currently playing better than defenseman Nate Schmidt. Not only has he been a calming force for his defensive partner, freshman Brady Skjei (New York Rangers), on the blue line but Schmidt is also playing well offensively. He leads the nation in points by a defenseman with 28 (8G-20A) and has scored a goal in each of his last four games.
"He always has the green light," Lucia said about Schmidt.
The two X factors for this weekend have to be goaltending and the Soldier Field ice. Both Minnesota and Wisconsin are in the top-5 in goals allowed and a big reason for that is the men between the cages. Landon Peterson and Joel Rumpel have split time for the Badgers, which has paid off with both having save percentages over .927% on a team that has been in 10 overtime games.
Gopher freshman goalie Adam Wilcox (Tampa Bay Lightning) is just below them with a .921 save percentage in 27 games. In the last six (all against teams who would be in the NCAA Tournament), he's allowed 2 or fewer goals four times.
Playing outdoors at Soldier Field on a different rink brings its own issues. Throw in Sunday's game being a conference game (this and last week's Battles on Ice between UNO and North Dakota are the first two outdoor WCHA games that count in the standings) and it makes things dependent on the weather. While temperatures are currently predicted to be in the lower 30s, good weather could help the pace of the game. It is a concern that at least from talking to Nick Bjugstad (Florida Panthers) is in the minds of the players.
"It just depends on the ice. You don't know if it's going to be a skill game or that type of the deal," said Bjugstad. "Hopefully it's not too windy."
The Soldier Field will be a new experience for the Gophers regardless; something Coach Lucia discussed about preparing for their first outdoor game.
"I did talk to (Michigan Tech head coach) Mel Pearson a few weeks back about how important was it to get out on the outdoor ice. He said the reality of it is that as long as you can skate on it the day before you get used to the atmosphere," Lucia said.
"The ice should be pretty good with the set up. It's not like playing on the old wooden boards and chicken wire like I grew up."
Yet with WCHA and NCAA Tournament ramifications (the Badgers are 20th while Minnesota is 2nd), Friday night's game is important; a point that every Gopher player made sure to mention. Two points is two points no matter where the game is played as summed up by Erik Haula.
"When we started the year we obviously knew that we were going to have the outdoor game. It's kind of the game we marked on our calendars. We look forward to it but now that the standings are so close and the weekend being as important as it is with the two games we got in hand and the points we have to catch up. We have to be able to put all our focus on Friday and go from there."
Minnesota and Wisconsin play Friday and Sunday. Friday's game starts at 7 p.m. CT at the Kohl Center in Madision, Wisconsin and airs on Fox Sports North. Sunday's game begins at 3:30 p.m. (following Notre Dame-Miami at noon CT) as part of the Hockey City Classic at Soldier Field. It airs live on BTN.
For more University of Minnesota coverage, check out The Daily Gopher and for University of Wisconsin coverage go to Bucky's Fifth Quarter. You can also SB Nation College Hockey follow us on Twitter @sbncollegepuck and like us on Facebook.
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