Big Ten Hockey – it all starts this weekend for border rivals Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The Wisconsin Badgers men’s hockey team and their head coach, Mike Eaves, probably prefer the Gophers maintain their top overall ranking in the country heading into their weekend match-up in Minneapolis.
After plenty of waves created through their postseason run a year ago, the Badgers have somewhat skated beneath the radar after plummeting from No. 2 overall in the preseason rankings. Following their season opening series in Boston, the team has found an identity of late. They’re becoming harder to score on, harder to press into bad situations and a team more like what they were advertised coming into the 2013-14 season.
After their third weekend off since the start of the year, Eaves said the eagerness is obvious.
“First of all, we’re excited to get back playing,” Eaves said, Monday. “The fact that we’re going into Minnesota (9-2-1) and they’re ranked where they are, our kids will be excited. It’s an opportunity to bang the drum a little bit and make some noise by going in there and playing well, see what we can do.”
Minnesota tasted defeat for just the second time this season, falling in the second game of their two-game, in-state series with UMD this past weekend. After taking the opener, Friday, in a convincing 6-1 fashion, the Gophers came out flat Saturday, and fell 6-2.
“I thought we didn’t play with great structure [Saturday], and we didn’t have real discipline in our performance,” Minnesota’s head coach, Dan Lucia, said. “Whether it was off of positioning, or stick positioning. Even the power play, giving up the two-on-ones.”
Flat is exactly what Eaves says he and his staff are attempting to avoid coming off a few days away from everything hockey related and over 13-days away from the competitive ice.
“It is a challenge, but it’s been kind of a fun one,” Eaves said of the change in regimen. “I think, what it does, it gets us outside of our normal box. We’ve been creative. We’ve done some things, tried some things that we haven’t done recently … in terms of training effects on the ice, in terms of off the ice with some things that we’ve done.”
On the ice, things have picked up for Wisconsin. As it should. Their roster is loaded with stars and have a nice complement of players from the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, as well as NHL draft picks who will play at that level.
The return of Joel Rumpel in goal two weeks ago adds some stability. In his first game back after a 35-day layoff, the absence was hardly noticeable at No. 8 Miam. Rumpel made 32 saves in a 3-2 Badger victory – good enough to be recognized by the Big Ten in being named first star of the week.
Rumpel is now 2-0-0 on the season. After he allowed two second-period goals to Miami-Ohio, he shut the door in the third period with 11 saves, including two breakaway stops that proved to be a big lift in helping Wisconsin come from behind in the third period. That 3-2 comeback win for the Badgers snapped Miami’s 50-game winning streak when leading after two periods.
The Big Ten opener in Minnesota this weekend means much the same for both the Gophers and Badgers.
For both, it’s a big chance on a big stage to show that they can be the team pre-season prognosticators thought they were. Wisconsin needs to solve it’s two-man equation in goal. It’s needs to find out if their special teams can hold a solid offense off the board when needed. It needs to find out if offensively, their up to the task against one of, if not the, best goaltenders in the nation.
Minnesota needs to respond to their first bit of adversity – a bit they knew at one point they’d see coming.
“We have been talking about this since the first day of the season, the process, and trying to work to get better,” Lucia said.”There will be some peaks and valleys and that’s just part of it. We understand that, and we accept that. We just to come back to work … and get better and try to get ready for Wisconsin.”