Badgers travel to take on Gophers

High stakes hockey rivalry renewed

They are in the same region, but worlds apart. Their players hail from the same places, yet are sworn enemies. Their games last 60 minutes, but echo for years. So why is it that going into this weekend's border battle between No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 4 Minnesota, the teams are so … similar?

But for the conspicuous difference between cardinal and white and maroon and gold, each of these Western Collegiate Hockey Association powerhouses might otherwise feel like they were looking into a mirror when the puck drops at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis this weekend. Though each of these bitter rivals would claim to have little in common with their nemesis, they might be more evenly matched than at any time in recent memory.

The Golden Gophers (5-2-0, 3-1-0 WCHA) won back-to-back national titles in 2001 and 2002, as well as the WCHA Tournament in 2003, but are finally looking fallible in the eyes of the nation's elite. Hoping to usurp their spot at the summit of college hockey are the Badgers.

Wisconsin (5-1-0, 3-1-0) has not had as impressive a run as their antagonists in recent seasons but now seems capable of returning Madison to its glory days of years past. All this has leveled the balance of power and made this weekend's duel arguably the most significant in the recent history of one of college sports' greatest rivalries.

"It's a big time series," UW head coach Mike Eaves said. "They're always right at the top, and we happen to be there right now too."

Nowhere are the teams' similarities more evident than on offense. The Badgers hold the edge in goals, averaging five per game to Minnesota's four, but have done so against easier competition (in addition to No. 10 Denver, the Gophers have faced off with No. 6 North Dakota). The power play units are relatively even as well, with Wisconsin converting on 13-of-51 chances, and Minnesota 10-of-50.

In a game of offensive juggernauts several individuals will occupy the attention of the defensive strategists. Foremost on the list is Gopher sophomore sensation Ryan Potulny, younger brother of former team star Grant. Potulny missed all but 15 games of last season with injury, but picked up six goals in his first four games back. He has seemingly extended his mean streak into this year with eight scores, good enough for first in the nation.

"Ryan is a great player," Eaves said. "He has a lot of the same innate abilities as his older brother has: he is a great competitor, he has skill, he's strong on his skates. They didn't lose much from one brother to another."

Aiding him on the offensive front are Danny Irmen and Gino Guyer, the top returnees in goals and points, respectively. In addition to these playmakers, the Gophers feature a myriad of capable forwards on their deep bench, allowing the Badger defense little respite.

The blue line is another area where the teams seem to mirror each other. Neither unit is very experienced but both are among the 10 best in the country, the Gophers allowing slightly under two goals per game, and the Badgers slightly over two.

Minnesota will rely on the skill and leadership of players like Chris Harrington and Judd Stevens, two of three upperclassmen still manning the back line. Inexperience has yet to be a problem for the Gophers, though, as freshmen Alex Goligoski and Derek Peltier are not only keeping up with their linemates, but statistically leading the defense. This development has proven to be a bonus for a team with more title aspirations.

And, not surprisingly, they aren't the only ones experiencing such a phenomena. Wisconsin is thriving on the defensive end with a unit that is mostly wet behind the ears. Though mistakes from these young corps are to be expected at times, the margin of error will be slim for both. This is especially true for Wisconsin, whose rookies will be away from the friendly confines of the Kohl Center for the first time.

"We understand that every game in the WCHA is important and we need all the points we can get," rookie defender Davis Drewiske said. "If we're going to have a shot at the league title, we're going to have to be road warriors and really get the job done at home and on the road."

Most would assume the edge in goaltending would go to the Badgers, what with touted senior Bernd Bruckler and national leader sophomore Brian Elliott between the pipes. Again, however, the Gophers have an equalizer.

Sophomore Kellen Briggs has so far been a force for Minnesota in net, letting up only 10 goals in six games and boasting a save percentage of .940. He is also tied with Elliott for the national lead in shutouts, with two.

"It makes me even hungrier, so I guess I'll have to take care of that," Wisconsin forward Robbie Earl said. "Its exciting — a good goalie like that going against a good offensive team like ours."

Though Briggs is clearly the No. 1 in Minneapolis, Wisconsin's situation in net is murkier. Bruckler clearly has claim to the starting spot and is endorsed by the coaches, but Elliott raised a few eyebrows in his two starts this year and, if things start to go against the visitors, it may be hard to keep the sophomore on the bench.

This weekend will not just be about a traditional rivalry; it has taken on a much greater significance. With no team seemingly able to hang on to the No. 1 spot in the national polls, teams like Minnesota and Wisconsin are drawing much attention around the country and are wary of any slip ups — especially against their arch nemeses.

"We're a different team," Eaves said. "We have some confidence now because of the games that we've played and we need to go in there and execute, play with that confidence level and see what we can come up with."

What: Wisconsin (5-1-0 overall, 3-1-0 WCHA) at Minnesota (5-2-0, 3-1-0)
When: Friday, Nov. 5 and Saturday, Nov. 6, 7:07 p.m. CST
Site: Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis, Minn.
Broadcasts: Live television on Fox Sports North, live radio WIBA-AM 1310
Series notes: Minnesota leads the all-time series 139-74-15.

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