There’s a new No. 1 in the Big Ten, and there can be no doubt about the validity of this top contender.
Trailing Minnesota by five points in the conference standings going into last weekend, Wisconsin did more than make the most of an opportunity to climb into the league’s top spot. The Badgers destroyed the Golden Gophers with 4-1 and 8-1 wins 3M Arena at Mariucci, the first road sweep for Wisconsin in Minnesota since February 2009.
Sophomore Dylan Holloway had two goals and four assists on the weekend. His classmate, Cole Caufield, had three goals and two assists. Seven Badgers total recorded multipoint games on the weekend, with Holloway and Caufield joined by Linus Weissbach in having consecutive multipoint nights.
“We’ve felt all along that we’ve got a really good team, a solid team, a fun team, a team that when all the pieces are in place can do some fun stuff,” said Badgers coach Tony Granato. “That’s kind of where we’re at.”
The Wisconsin offense now tops the nation, averaging 3.95 goals per game in 20 games played. In their last eight contests, Wisconsin has scored at least four goals per game. Going back to nine and 10 games ago, that was a split against Minnesota in which the Badgers scored three goals in each contest. The Badgers ride a four-game win streak into two home games against Michigan this weekend, and they’re 8-2-0 since the start of 2021, outscoring opponents 45-17 in that span. Not for nothing, Wisconsin’s power play is also the best in the nation.
“The last six weeks, we’ve been relatively healthy,” said Granato. “We’ve got all our bodies back in place.”
Granato, a master of understatement, said that the series against Minnesota was a weekend when “things went our way.”
“The two big guys who have scored for us all along had big weekends again,” Granato said. “The goaltenders were really good.”
Granato shrugs off any talk of exactly how good this Wisconsin team might be, of what it means to have overtaken Minnesota in the Big Ten standings, and whether or not the Badgers are underrated or have been underestimated, perhaps.
“I think the most important thing is just like we’ve done all year, we’re just happy to play, we’re happy we’re going well, and we just want to look forward to the next challenge, that being Michigan coming up this weekend,” said Granato.
The Golden Gophers are not accustomed to being on the receiving end of such shellackings this season. Averaging 3.90 goals per game themselves for third in the nation, the Gophers have been held to a single point in just four contests this season and had scored 30 goals in the four games previous to the series against Wisconsin.
“A lot of times a coach can tell you, ‘You can see it coming. You have an inkling.’ There’s no way that our staff had any inkling that this was going to happen,” said Minnesota coach Bob Motzko. “This one blindsided us. We’ve been awful good for most of the year.”
When asked if the series against the Badgers was the kind of weekend a team might throw away and forget, Motzko said, “Nope. This doesn’t go in the trash. You wear this one.”
Motzko cautioned about letting his team go to emotional extremes.
“We just scored 30 goals in a 4-and-0 stretch,” Motzko said. “Not get too high, and we’re not going to dissect this down to the bone and think the world’s falling. This stings and this hurts. The truth’s in the middle and we’ve got to get back to that ground quick.”
How quick? The Gophers are traveling to South Bend this weekend to play Notre Dame, a team that swept Minnesota in Minneapolis a month ago when the Gophers were the top team in the nation.
Now in second place and one point behind Wisconsin, Minnesota has tough schedule to round out the regular season. Of their four remaining series, two are this weekend’s against Notre Dame and an end-of-season set against Michigan, two of the teams in the conference with winning records so far.
“We’ve got a good group in there,” said Motzko, “and we’ve got a lot to play for and we’ve got to be excited to get back to work.”
In their remaining eight games, the Badgers also face Michigan and Notre Dame but finish against the two teams currently at the bottom of the conference standings, Michigan State and Ohio State. Granato is taking nothing for granted.
“The good thing about our team and what I’ve liked a lot about our team is when something’s done, we move forward and look forward to the next thing, and that’s really what we have to do in getting ready for next week’s opponent in Michigan,” said Granato.
“It’s important for us, it’s important for any team, if you have success or failures on a weekend is to learn from it, move forward and get ready for your next challenge.”
A total of five goaltenders saw playing time in the series between Wisconsin and Minnesota.
For the Badgers, senior Robbie Beydoun and freshman Cameron Rowe each picked up wins. With the 8-1 victory, Rowe’s record improves to 6-1-0 and his other impressive numbers – 1.49 GAA and .948 SV% — have earned him some Mike Richter Award talk.
On the other end of the ice, Minnesota senior Jack LaFontaine registered two losses. He played the entire 4-1 game Friday and was responsible for the first four goals allowed in the Saturday game. LaFontaine was replaced by Jared Moe 42 seconds into the second period after Ty Pelton-Byce made it a 4-1 game. Moe allowed two goals in the remainder of the second period.
For the third period, though, Minnesota’s Bob Motzko went with sophomore Justin Close, who saw 29 minutes and 13 seconds of playing time last season. The decision, said Motzko, was the highlight of the night for the Gophers.
“He’s probably one of the most loved guys on our team,” said Motzko. “When we said he was going in there, that was the loudest cheer we had of the night in the whole building, inside our locker room. They were pulling for him. We got him some playing time. He’s a good goalie, but more importantly, he’s just a great kid. It was good to get him in there.”
The series between Ohio State and Penn State that was scheduled for Friday and Saturday will have to be rescheduled because of “positive COVID-19 results among Penn State’s Tier 1 personnel,” according to a statement released by Penn State Tuesday, Feb. 9.
The term “Tier 1” refers to student-athletes and coaches and all staff who have physical contact with a given team, including athletic trainers, equipment managers and physical therapists. No information specific to the individuals who tested positive will be released.
This is the second time in two weeks that the Nittany Lions have had their schedule disrupted because of COVID-19 protocols. Penn State was scheduled to play Michigan Feb. 3-4, but that series was postponed because the entire athletic department at the University of Michigan took a two-week timeout to stem a surge of coronavirus cases in Washtenaw County, Mich. The Nittany Lions last played Jan. 28-29, a pair of overtime games that produced a split with visiting Notre Dame.
In his regular weekly media conference Monday – before the announcement of the postponed series against Ohio State – Guy Gadowsky said that he and the Nittany Lions were eager to get back to competition.
“I’m not sure a break is what we needed,” Gadowsky said. “We are just anxious to continue on the path that we’ve been on.”
For Penn State, that path was a steady recover to an 0-5 start to the season. Since the beginning of the calendar year, the Nittany Lions have gone 6-4-0, with that win against Notre Dame and an especially impressive split against now-first place Wisconsin Jan. 21-22.
The Wolverines will return to action this weekend when Michigan hosts Wisconsin Saturday and Sunday. On his radio show this week, Mel Pearson said that the Wolverines were playing “at a high level” before they were sidelined.
“You know as a coach when your team is starting to figure it out and play as a team,” Pearson said.
Michigan was 5-1-0 in the three series leading up to its unexpected hiatus.
During the two-week shutdown of the U-M athletic department, every activity related to athletics was suspended – including practicing and conditioning – as all personnel were directed to quarantine. That forced a postponement of a game against Michigan State scheduled for Feb. 9, after the ban was lifted.
“Your timing gets thrown off when you get two weeks,” said Pearson. “It might take us a couple of weeks to get back up to where we were. It is what it is.”
This isn’t the first time that B1G teams have had their schedules interrupted because of COVID-19, but the disruptions and postponements now coming close to the end of the season. The league will work with everyone to reschedule postponed contests to make sure that all games are played, but that assumes a best-case scenario for the remainder of the season. All seven Big Ten teams are scheduled to compete in the conference’s playoff championship tournament at Notre Dame’s Compton Family Ice Arena March 18-20. After this weekend’s games, that leaves roughly a month to complete the Big Ten regular-season schedule.
Pearson knows that between now and then, the Wolverines have a lot of work to do. Currently in forth place, Michigan has four games remaining against opponents ahead of the Wolverines in the standings, the two this weekend against Wisconsin and road series in Minnesota March 5-6.
“We’re guaranteed six weeks left of our season,” said Pearson. “That’s it. We have to make sure we take advantage of each and every week that we get the opportunity to play.”