In last weekend's highlighted series, I looked at a reeling Gophers team that had come under fire through numerous media outlets for a percieved attitude problem. In their series against the MSU Spartans, the Gophers answered back with two strong, 60-minute games. Their efforts last weekend won't silence critics who have pointed to struggles on the ice as evidence of immaturity off the ice, but they did bolster their position in the standings and pushed the Gophers above .500 for the first time in 2016.
To a large extent, the Gophers' goal this week will necessarily be to build on their success last weekend against a respectable Spartans group. In both games, the Gophers came out of the gate with energy and effective passing across all areas of the ice. They played an offensive game, but locked down on defense when they needed to. As has been their weakness all season, they relaxed with a lead during the third period of each game, but unlike the past, never let play get out of hand. They established a stronger, more consistent defensive tempo which kept the Spartans offense from mounting a comeback late in each game.
The real challenge for head coach Don Lucia this week will be to instill in his young players a sense of history that has lacked all season. In recent years, Kyle Rau, Nick Bjugstad, and Nate Schmidt have shown tremendous leadership in the form of persistence. That persistence isn't just what has separated those players from the rest, it's what's defined the Gopher hockey program throughout its history.
It's not just about what the program has done that makes a team special, it's about what you contribute to that history that makes a team special. For many young Gophers, there's a sense of success that comes with donning the Maroon and Gold. Freshmen Gophers like Jack Sadek have immense potential, but haven't always had to show the persistence that past leaders have shown and the same persistence that has imbued those sweaters with so much meaning.
On the other side of the ice, that sense of history resonates much more profoundly. While the power dynamics of Big Ten play in recent years have often favored the Gophers among those setting the odds, they haven't always played out that way. Struggling Badgers squads have always seemed to get up for games against Minnesota, a fact that shows on the scoreboards and in the stands. They bring heavy physical presence and make it a point to score early to deflate the sails of Gophers fans who make the trek and their fans are sure to lament every save with a sort-of-but-not-totally-accurate "SIEVE!" cheer.
The real strength of the Badgers when they play the Gophers has been their ability to come together as a team and play a solid, all-around game against a team that thrives on offense. Successful Badgers squads in recent years have stifled the Gophers' early efforts and have struck early themselves, taking the fans out of the game. They've taken Minnesota out of the game by forcing them to skip their usual beats and made them play an awkward rhythm through the neutral zone.
In person, the tension during these games is palpable and real. The pocketed masses of Gophers fans trade jabs with the Wisconsin faithful and each save is either a dagger or a total victory. It's a welcome atmosphere in contrast to the typically-stale feeling that often overwhelms the Kohl Center. That's not to lay any judgment on Badgers fans; instead, it's an observation that the product on the ice often informs the fans how to play and vice versa. When your team plays poorly, it's hard to get energized about the game. And when your fans aren't in it, it's hard for you to get into it, too.
That all changes when Minnesota comes to town. But in all honesty, it's hard to nail down the strengths of this years Badgers squads. They're a team that plays a pourous defensive game, and struggles to score from anywhere but down low or in the paint. In that sense, it may be difficult for the Badgers, as energized as they may be, to prevent a system-oriented Gophers' squad from breaking out up and along the boards.
Stopping the Gohpers' transition game will be Job #1 for the Badgers this weekend.Their game plan will surely be to score early to take the Gophers' fans out of the game, but whose goal isn't to score early? Nevertheless, that will be the objective, and it may be a difficult challenge to mount, as Minnesota has gotten strong starts during its recent string of games. If Wisconsin wants to stay in the game, they'll have to do it by keeping Minnesota out. If they're up to it and the fans can help, they may be able to do just that.
This weekend's highlighted series is maybe a bit of a selfish selection, but it's mostly out of necessity. As a Minnesota hockey fan living in Madison, there are only so many opportunities to get a look at the teams I cover up close and personal, and even fewer such opportunities to share those experiences with the readers of the Hockey Wilderness. Hockey is one thing to watch on the screen; it's an entirely different object to experience in-person.
As is always the case, I'll be providing periodic updates via @HWCollegePuck. As is never the case, this week I'll be understandably more focused on the highlighted series. I'll also be providing #HotTakesAndSausage via my personal account @Real_JackVT.