On the brink

Wisconsin's men's hockey team faces critical test against resurgent Gophers

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What: No. 7 Wisconsin (15-7-6 overall, 9-4-5 WCHA) at No. 5 Minnesota (14-9-3, 9-8-1)

When: Friday Jan. 30 and Saturday Jan. 31, 7:05 p.m. CST

Site: Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis, Minn.

Broadcasts: Live television coverage on Fox Sports North and Fox Sports Digital Central, live radio coverage on 1310 WIBA (AM)

Series Notes: Minnesota leads overall 137-74-15. In Minneapolis, the Gophers lead 78-21-5. Wisconsin leads the season series 1-0-1.


"They are in a little bit of a slump and we hope that we just continue to get better this weekend and they don't come out of it."


Mike Eaves, prior to Wisconsin's home series with Minnesota in mid-November


Luckily for Eaves and Wisconsin, the Gophers did not break out of their slump that weekend as the Badgers took three out of four points. However, since then Minnesota has come out of that slump, and they have done it in a big way.


"A lot of our guys are from Minnesota so they know how big of a game it is. And our other guys saw that it was a huge series when Minnesota came to town and how big it was for us to beat them. It definitely adds to things," goalie Bernd Bruckler said.


Following the series with Wisconsin the back-to-back national champion Gophers fell to 2-7-1. But since that weekend they have gone 13-2-2, catapulting themselves back into the nation's top five teams and putting themselves within striking distance of the MacNaughton Cup.


Back in November, many questioned how this Gopher team could be so different from those of the years past. But Eaves and his squad put out the warning that things were about to change. They were lucky that series occurred before their breakout, but now they face the daunting task of taking on the red-hot Golden Gophers in Minnesota.


"We have to get back to Badger hockey and just play our best here at the end of the season," Bruckler said.


One of the major difference makers for Minnesota has been its goaltending. Early in the season, freshman Kellen Briggs was still getting his feet wet, but since then he has proven that he is quite comfortable between the pipes. The rookie has improved his record to 8-6-1 in conference play while posting four shutouts and accumulating a 2.33 goals against average.


"His numbers are better and obviously they are winning which gives him confidence," Eaves said. "I think we need to go in there and we have to fire pucks at him and get people in front of him. That will make his job much more difficult."


This could pose a major problem for Wisconsin. The Badgers have suffered through scoring woes in recent games. Leading scorer Ryan MacMurchy's goalless streak continued again through last weekend, extending to nine games. A road series against an arch-rival and a team that blew out the Badgers the last time they met up in Minneapolis might just be enough to give MacMurchy and his teammates some extra spark.


"Certainly we are looking for more goal support as a defensive corps and as a team, but we just have to be patient and it is going to come again for us," Bruckler said.


Wisconsin must also be wary of penalties in the next few weeks. Teams like Minnesota and North Dakota know how to kill a team if they are given a man-advantage, and the penalty kill has been shaky lately for the Badgers. During their school-record unbeaten streak there was a span where Wisconsin's penalty kill was successful on 61 of 64 attempts. Now the Badgers have given up seven power play goals in the last four games.


"We can't take so many penalties. And your best penalty [killer] has to be your goaltender and he would like some of those back. And then just executing what we ask [the players] to do," Eaves said. "Probably a combination of those three things add up to those goals."


This is a big series for both teams. A sweep for Minnesota could all but kill Wisconsin's hopes of a Western Collegiate Hockey Association title, but would put the Gophers right in the thick of things. A sweep for the Badgers would edge them closer to the top of the standings and thwart Minnesota's chances. However, both teams will be heading into this series with a lot to play for and a lot of energy, setting up one of the most entertaining and important series' of the year.


"It's like playoff hockey right now," Eaves said. "These games right now tell us a lot about ourselves and prepare us for the end of the year. That's why they are so fun."

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