Across their collegiate programs, the long history of the Minnesota-Wisconsin sports rivalry has been defined by so many things. Little moments in big games. Big plays that send visiting fans home one way or the other, disappointed or elated The jabs fans throw at their opponents. It all boils over a handful of times each year, but never more than it does in hockey.
And that's because, in just about every Division I collegiate sport, Wisconsin has the total edge. Football, basketball, organized drinking (just kidding about that last one). Wisconsin tends to dominate in these endeavors where Minnesota has historically and consistently floundered. But in hockey, both programs have a history of success and competitive spirit that puts them on even ground. It means the hockey rivalry, every time it's ignited, sparks something new, reminds us of how it's been defined in the past, and continues to evolve in ways that are amazing to watch.
Committing to the Game
This weekend, the Badgers tried to change the way we define the Border Battle. In the span of 60 minutes on Saturday, a handful of Wisconsin players signaled a sea-change in the way things would play out in future meetings. They sent the message from behind the Plexiglas of the penalty box and to the largest audience the Kohl center has housed all season. They sent the message by targeting Gophers' players with reckless and dangerous hits, and playing a very un-Wisconsin game. But I'll come back to that in a minute.
The Badgers' work on Saturday night was in no doubt prompted by their frustration after a 4-0 drubbing the night before. In my preview last Friday, I pointed out that the Gophers would come out of the gate and try to score early to take the crowd out of things, and to establish an offensive tempo. I also observed that, if the Badgers wanted to stay in it, they'd have to do everything in their power to prevent that offense from revving up. In Friday night's game, the Gophers offense did just that.
Minnesota established a rhythm early on and it was difficult for the Badgers to knock them off of it. Throughout the 14 scoreless minutes of the first period, the Badgers' defense struggled to keep their sticks active in the neutral zone and allowed the Gophers' transition game to take over time and time again.
Eventually, the Gophers broke through on Hudson Fasching's first of the weekend. Fasching's goal would prove to be the game-winner, as the rest of the night was largely a story of Eric Schierhorn's dominance in net. Midway through the first, Schierhorn took a shot off the helmet, which sent his helmet off and Schierhorn to the bench, leaking blood.
As Schierhorn stood by the bench, Brock Kautz prepped his crease and sank in with his team up by 1. To step in in a big rivalry meeting only up by a goal has got to be a stressful task. Fortunately for Kautz, he wouldn't have to take on that responsibility. In one of those gruesome, "hockey-players-are-so-tough" moves, Schierhorn was cleaned up and tended to alongside the bench and was back in net in a matter of minutes.
Behind a churning offense, Schierhorn stopped 29 shots (I'm really suspicious of the shot counter on this game, but we'll go with it) en route to a 4-0 Gophers win on Friday. It's an embarrassing loss, to be sure, but one from which strong programs (of which the Badgers are one) recover every single weekend.
Playing the Game and Playing the Body
Friday night's Minnesota win was typical, classic Gophers hockey, but it was atypical for what has been a tighter series in past years. Despite their recruiting struggles, the Wisconsin men's hockey program has always done an amazing job coaching its players heading into Border Battle series'. This has led to so many tight games and regular upsets that even the most confident fans of either team have never been able to be certain of their team's victory.
On Saturday, though, that coaching seemed absent, at least in a hockey sense. The wounds of the previous night were opened up too early on Saturday, as the Gophers' opening faceoff win gave Fasching his second goal of the weekend. Off the dot, the Gophers won the puck back and to the left. As Fasching moved up the boards, he received Nick Seeler's strong stretch pass that sent him in along the left wall. Fasching ripped the opening shot between Matt Jurusik's elbow and knee.
What followed Fasching's opening goal was instability and a creaky Badgers' performance. Throughout the first period, the Gophers piled on their offense, and Jurusik was both taken out of the game after the second goal and sent on in relief 7:15 later after Adam Miller struggled to corral pucks. In terms of scoring, the rest of the game followed this model, with the Gophers dominating play and directing pucks into the net at-will.
For their part, the Badgers tried to push back early, sparked by Aidan Cavallini's physical plays along the boards. His energetic checks gave some life to the Badgers' play in the first period, though Cavallini's checks were often late, dangerous, and poorly-advised from a strategic point of view. Too often, Cavallini led into a check along the boards, but by the time he was in the area, the puck had been gone for a few seconds, leaving Cavallini out of position, gassed, and committing a penalizable hit.
Without any adjustment, Cavallini's poor strategy finally cost the Badgers at 11:20 in the first period, when he took a run at Tommy Novak of the Gophers. Cavallini's check left Novak on the ground for a few moments as he challenged the Minnesota bench and jeering visiting fans on his way off the ice. It was a scary hit, with Novak bent forward and leaning toward the boards for a breakout. Cavallini, who's not a tall guy, pushes his arms up and through Novak's back, launching him unbraced into the boards.
For the most part, Cavallini's recklessness was contained by his team, who played an aggressive but even-keeled checking game, with few exceptions (see just below). The Badgers struggled on offense and defense, and Jurusik, despite his poor play throughout the night, never completely shut down, which should give Wisconsin fans optimism going orward. The biggest error in the Badgers' system this weekend was their transition and neutral zone game. At no point were they able to really slow down the Minnesota entry strategy and force them to dump and chance.
But after two frustrating periods in Madison with no adjustment and no reigning-in from their head coach, the Badgers game devolved into opportunistic checking. Midway through the third period, that sort of opportunism gave way to Eddie Wittchow lining up and exploding through Tommy Novak. Again, I'll avoid editorializing too much and will let you see the check yourself (courtesy of CJ Fogler):
Tommy Novak took a huge hit from Eddie Wittchow, was helped off the ice. Wittchow ejected pic.twitter.com/IW6ZOv64ji— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) January 24, 2016
Botch of these checks sent a huge message, not only to Novak and the gophers, but to Badgers fans and the NCAA as well. To Novak and the Gophers, they sent the message that they are willing to lose in embarrassing fashion, provided their opponents are willing to pay the price. That's a philosophy that's born out of seasons of frustration and struggling to keep up with the NCAA game, and one that's not teneble long-term for a program as storied and strong as Wisconsin's.
To fans of the Badgers, it sent the message that this is the product they're willing to put on the ice.
Wittchow and Cavallini suspended
As a result of their plays on Saturday, Cavallini and Wittchow earned 1- and 3-game suspensions from the Big Ten, respectively. It's a shame that the series devolved in such a violent way for the Badgers. Historically, these series' have been consistently-entertaining, worthwhile affairs for fans of the Badgers. No matter how good or bad Wisconsin's record was in that given year, they'd always provide solid hockey and a reason to make the trek to Madison.
In this past weekend's series, the Badgers play was disappointing for their fans in so many ways; on offense, defense, and in net. But most disappointing for Badgers fans and collegiate hockey fans shouldn't be the idea that Wisconsin didn't put up a fight, because they did. What should be the biggest disappointment is the fact that Head Coach Mike Eaves' squad believed the way to show they could compete with a better program was to commit incredibly dangerous hits on defenseless players.
The most disappointing part about watching the series live and in-person wasn't the one-sidedness of the scoreboard. It was the single-minded focus of the Badgers squad on playing themselves out of each game through a series of poorly-executed checks and weak efforts to draw the Gophers off their game. Physicality has always been a hallmark of the Border Battle, but it has always added to the quality and intensity of play. This weekend, for at least one side, it was all fire and no fuel. And that's a shame.