Border Battle Wraps Up Regular Season For Gophers
The Golden Gophers will took to extend their four-game winning streak and – in the process – hopefully become the WCHA regular season champions this weekend when they welcome the Wisconsin Badgers to Mariucci Arena for the team’s final WCHA regular season series of the season.
Thanks to back-to-back sweeps of Bemidji State two weekends ago and Nebraska Omaha last Friday and Saturday, the Gophers are in the driver’s seat when it comes to claiming the MacNaughton Cup this weekend. Minnesota is two points clear of Minnesota Duluth for first place in the WCHA, and the Gophers can finish no lower than second place. The Gophers hold the tiebreaker over UMD, who wraps up their regular season at St. Cloud State this weekend, thanks to their sweep of the Bulldogs back in October.
Should the two teams finish with the same amount of points, they would be considered co-champions and share the MacNaughton Cup though the Gophers would of course get the No. 1 overall seed for the WCHA playoffs. But considering the Bulldogs are playing in a building – the National Hockey Center – in which they’ve won just twice in their last 13 games in, and the Gophers are playing a team that has won just three times on the road this season and currently resides in ninth place, it’s fair to say it would be very disappointing if the Gophers don’t win the league title outright.
From a PairWise perspective, the Gophers now sit alone in 7th, meaning they would be the No. 2 seed in the West Regional at the Xcel Energy Center if the NCAA Tournament started today. Due to their poor non-conference record they have probably an outside chance of getting a No. 1 seed, but it would be nice if they could hang on to a two-seed in order to have the last chance in at least their first game of the weekend should it get to that point. It would take a total collapse over the next few weeks for them to miss out on making the field of 16 at this point.
The Gophers became the first team to sweep Omaha in their barn since January of 2008, thanks to a pair of 3-2 wins. On Friday night, the Gophers dominated the game but it took a third period tally by Nick Bjugstad to force overtime, and then sophomore defenseman Jake Parenteau scored his first career goal to give the Gophers a dramatic – and important – victory.
On Saturday, UNO came out hard and scored just over six minutes into the game to take an early lead, but Mark Alt’s fifth goal of the season answered the UNO score less than a minute later. Kyle Rau would score twice on the power play and the Gophers held on for another one-goal win.
In terms of injuries, Bjugstad took a hard hit late in the second period on Saturday and didn’t play in the third. However, head coach Don Lucia said this week that he expects Bjugstad to practice in full leading into the weekend and to be in the lineup come Friday night.
Senior Nick Larson, who’s been out nearly two months with a wrist injury, and freshman Ben Marshall, who missed last weekend’s series with an undisclosed injury, both should practice this week and could be available this weekend as well. Getting Marshall back to head-up the second power play unit is much-needed after that group struggled last weekend in his absence. Larson was a regular before his injury so he figures to make his way back into the lineup on either the third or fourth line as well.
As was to be expected in Madison this year, it’s been a down season. They lost nearly every key player form a season ago including Craig Smith, Jake Gardiner, and Jordy Murray as early departures, so the fact that they sit in the bottom-half of the league standings really isn’t a huge surprise.
They still bring some very skilled players with them this weekend, including arguably the nation’s top defenseman in junior Justin Schultz, who has 42 points in 32 games so far. Sophomore center Mark Zengerle anchors the team’s top line and has 11 goals and 44 points. Those are two of the league’s best players, so the Gophers will have to try to limit their chances as best they can.
Three of the team’s top four scorers comprise the Badgers’ top line, as sophomores Tyler Barnes (23 points) and Michael Mersch (28 points) play alongside Zengerle on Mike Eaves’ top group. The Badgers don’t have a lot of secondary scoring, so if you can limit that top line to a goal per game, the Gophers should be in great shape come the end of each night.
On the backend for the Badgers, aside from Schultz, junior John Ramage is the team’s top shutdown guy, and has been paired with freshman Jake McCabe, who missed some time earlier this season with an injury but came to the Badgers from the U.S. Development Program and could be a big-time player down the road. It’s a solid group of defenders that won’t make life easy on the Gopher forwards.
Aside from their early departures from last season, another reason many pegged the Badgers as a lower-half WCHA team this season was the fact that they lost a pair of senior netminders and were poised to be breaking in a pair of freshmen. Joel Rumpel has started 21 of the team’s 32 games and has okay numbers: 10-9-2 with a .910 save percentage and a 2.70 goals against average. But when you consider that the Badgers typically hang their hat on having big-time goaltending, it’s a big drop-off from what Cardinal and White fans come to expect between the pipes.
Wisconsin comes to town on a bit of a role though having won three straight, including a 5-2 win over Denver a few weeks ago and most recently won twice in Bemidji against a Beaver team that had lost four previous times at home this season.
In league play the Badgers sit tied for ninth in scoring offense at 2.73 goals per game (Gophers are fourth at 3.27) and are tied for seventh in scoring defense at 3.08 goals per game (Gophers are first at 2). What’s really killed the Badgers thought has been special teams: they are 11th in both the penalty kill and power play, where as the Gophers rank second in both categories.
The bottom line is that the Gophers are better in nearly every key area, particularly goaltending and special teams, and have MUCH more to play for than the Badgers do. Minnesota is on home ice with a chance to hang a banner for the first time in years, so one would hope the Gophers would come out flying on Friday night and carry that intensity through all weekend long.
Both games are scheduled to start at 7 p.m. and will air on FSN Plus.