Over the Borderline

The Big weekend in the WCHA is here, the Border Battle between Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Another Border War features UNH hosting Maine (CSTV, 8 p.m.), and an in-state rivalry in Michigan, between the Spartans and Wolverines (tonight in Ann Arbor, tomorrow at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit) highlight a great rivalry weekend in college hockey.

I was in Minneapolis in November when the Badgers were swept by the Gophers in two close games (one decided on a penalty shot). The Badgers were a game club, but remember that the entire left side of their defense, all rookies, were playing their first road series ever, and playing it at Mariucci Arena. To say they were a little start struck at the huge crowd and explosive Gopher offense would be fair.

“They stood around for a while until the game was pretty much over,” said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves of that weekend. “Our kids have matured, they have come together as a group. I think they believe in one another and I think that will be a factor for us, being in our barn.”

The teams meet in Madison this weekend where for the first time in Kohl Center history, the weekend is a sellout. Scalpers prowl the outside of the building with tickets in the lower bowl going for $150.

The Badgers have momentum on their side, yet were off last weekend so it will be interesting to see how warm their engines are as this weekend begins. With the youngest team in all of college hockey, there are many who are eager to see how the Badgers approach this series mentally, and the challenge in front of Mike Eaves is getting his players to focus a little less on the enthusiasm and more on discipline. Not that you’d ever expect a young hockey team to be able to keep their emotions in check in front of 14,800 rabid fans, but it will be a factor especially in the early stages Friday night.

The Badgers enter the game on a six game winning streak (which hasn’t happened since the Dany Heatley era), and are 11-1 in their last 12 WCHA games. Despite their youth, they have maintained a steady climb to the top of the WCHA despite a few bumps along the way (mostly out of conference play). The Gophers come in reeling a bit, having been swept by Michigan Tech and a split with Minnesota-Duluth. For Minnesota, this is back to back emotional weekends, as they have had to deal with the fact that they were swept by Duluth last season in four regular season games, and lost to them in the NCAA regionals. That was a huge series for the Gophers last weekend in many ways.

Wisconsin will take to the ice with one major intangible on their side, and that is their lone senior, Brend Bruckler in goal. Despite names like Richter, Joseph, Kliesenger in the Wisconsin record books, Bruckler simply put is the best goalie in the program’s history. His play this season has been a major factor in Bucky’s success.

“He took some time early in the season to find his form,” said Eaves. “Same as last season. However, he has really found that groove and his play is one of the reasons we have been able to keep winning. We are also scoring more this season, and that helps.”

They’ll need those goals against Kellen Briggs, who for Minnesota has been a rock in goal. With the exception of two games he’d probably like to forget (the second home game against CC, and the loss to Mankato), Briggs has been great. However, if one can point to anything that has changed slightly, it is that Briggs, so brilliant in the first part of the season, has been just very solid in the second half. Still, a solid Briggs is better than a great goalie for many teams around college hockey.

It will be getting to Briggs that will be the challenge for Wisconsin, and to that, they’ll need the puck. That could be a challenge this weekend as Minnesota returns its top six defensemen to the blueline at the same time. Alex Goligosky returns from injury, Nate Hagemo is back from injury, and Derek Pelltier’s hand is out of the cast and will be part of the picture. The Minnesota defense might be the best puck control defense in the game, and with their explosive speed and offensive instincts, they can control possession time and keep the game moving away from the Gopher net.

Controling that will be a challenge, one that Eaves has prepared his team for.

“Every time you’re a stick length away from them, finish them,” said Eaves. “Make it miserable for them. If they’re getting smacked into the boards it’s tough for them to get up ice. We need good back side pressure, our forwards must prevent their people from getting up ice.”

For Eaves, he is thrilled with the challenge of the weekend, but has gone out of his way to make sure all around Badgerland it is known that this is the first of five huge weekends for Wisconsin hockey. Much like coach Rick Comley does with his Spartans at Michigan State when they play Michigan (which the do this weekend, how convenient), the Wisconsin players must not be badgered with this weekend being all or nothing, because if they come up with nothing, in theory, what’s left to play for?

“I’m really looking forward to it. I think the kids have earned this right. We talk about the fact that we have forged ourselves into a good team,” said Eaves at his Monday press briefing. “This is where we take our season and it either becomes a good season or a great season for us. And we have that opportunity because of all the hard work the kids have put in.”

When he says kids, he’s right in describing either team. However, it is Minnesota’s kids that have seemed hit the wall at the moment. Between the injuries to key defensemen, and the scoring funk that Ryan Potulny and Danny Irmen have been in (Potulny has a goal in his last 10 games), while Irmen, who had a hat trick against Minnesota State on January 14th, has been blanked in four of his last five, showing just a goal in that span.

While momentum rides with the Badgers, on paper the Gophers are awesome, and were early in the season. Everything broke their way, including an iffy call for a penalty shot that led to a game breaking goal against Wisconsin, and OT game winner that was directed in by a skate that should have been waved off against Minnesota State. Potulny was dominant, Irmen was great, Kris Chucko showed very little awe coming in as a freshman. However, the Gophers have been slowed down by teams who have brought their A game to the table which has gone unanswered by Minnesota.

For the Badgers, fate could be in their own hands. If they sweep Minny, they’ll be eight points up with two games in hand.

Scouting report

Minnesota: Must get their defense involved, which could help get Potulny and Irmen reenergized. Those two feed off the great puck rushing ability of the backline, and it was obvious even a month ago at Boston University how much Minnesota’s game changed when the backline isn’t a factor. … Gophers have won four of their last five on the road, most recently sweeping Minnesota State…Must take control early in a rabid arena, possible playing off the Badgers expected enthusiasm. Young teams make mistakes when emotion takes over, and that emotion will be all over the Wisconsin bench. If Minny gets an early lead, watch out. They have shown this season that they get better as the game goes on when they are away from home.

They need to forget the rivalry aspect and just go for the points. If they sweep, they sit in a tie with Wisconsin at 28 points each. Minnesota has owned this matchup, they are 63-28-5 vs Wisconsin over the past few decades, and have an 8-1-1 record in the last ten between these teams. Minnesota needs to get after it, be aggressive, and control the puck. Coach Don Lucia will preach to them to move their feet and not lay back. For Minnesota, after some uninspiring performances of late, it is vital they attack the Wisconsin defense, get in the action, work and cycle down low, and get their blood flowing early. When a team is fragile as the Gophers seem to be, early goals against are killers, especially in hostile country. The Badgers are 15-0 when scoring first!

Wisconsin: Led by their own kids, the Badgers must be composed in what will be a unbelievable atmosphere that many of the players on both side have probably never encountered. Ryan McMurchy, a junior forward rides a seven game point streak (6-6=12), and sophomore Robbie earl continues to lead by example with 30 points in 26 games. Freshman Joe Pavelski sits second with 29 in 26. Defensemen Kyle Kluberantz and Jeff Likens both have double digit point totals and provide a good offensive presence from the blueline.

Bruckler must be great in goal to keep the Minnesota offense quiet. He was very good in the two losses to Minnesota in November, and if Minnesota’s offense finds its groove this weekend, Bruckler is the undisputed key to the series. For Wisconsin, they must heed to their coaches advice and have a good forecheck and backcheck presence as Minnesota is one of those teams that can make a turnover or odd man a rush a tragedy for their opponent. The Badgers, so good when scoring first, will try to go for the throat early against a team that is on its heels, but will learn as the game goes on that discipline must rule over enthusiasm. If they start running all over the ice for hits instead of playing with their trademark discipline and composure, they’ll open a door for the Gophers that needs to remain sealed shut until Sunday.

Notes: This rivalry between these bordering states extends beyond the ice, especially this weekend. While they battle at Kohl on the ice, the basketball teams will be playing against each other in Minneapolis. At stake overall is the Border Battle Cup, which shown Minnesota ahead by 135-65. While the Badgers beat the Gophers on the gridiron to recapture the Paul Bunyon Axe, the Gophers swept the Bagders on ice in Minneapolis. This weekend, a sweep by Wisconsin on the ice and the court evens out that score quite a bit.

Says Badgers TV analyst Tom Sagissor, a former Badger player, “This rivalry is as intense as any I have ever seen. I remember growing up watching the Black Hawks-North Stars rivalry, and they hated each other. This is even more intense. It goes back to Herb Brooks and Badger Bob Johnson.”

Hopefully they’ll do better there than the Packers recently. The Badgers have been seriously looking into playing a game outdoors at Lambeau Field next season. The matchup between Wisconsin and an opponent TBD would be played as the US Hockey Hall of Fame game. According to WCHA Commissioner Bruce McLeod, the game would cost approximately $600,000 to finance, including the portable ice surface. The game would count in the regular season standings, factor in the pairwise rankings, but not count against the 36 game limit for the regular season. I’m hearing that BU and BC had discussed a game at Fenway Park in the past, but no word on whether the discuissions ever got to the serious stage. The original outdoor game was played by Michigan and Michigan State in Spartan Stadium, which drew the largest ever crown to a hockey game, 74,554. The game finished 3-3.