Border battle has hefty implications

Wisconsin begins arduous stretch run with the McNaughton Cup and NCAA seeding on the line

MADISON – From players to fans, anyone associated with the Wisconsin men's hockey team has never needed a reason to get hyped about a series with rival Minnesota. As everyone gets ready for the border battle this weekend at the Kohl Center, however, an odd question will be raised — which reason to beat the Gophers is most important?

The showdown between No. 3 Wisconsin and No. 8 Minnesota Friday and Saturday is no mere interstate rivalry. Too much lies between these teams for it to be that simplistic.

"I think this is a bigger series because all the factors play a part," Badger wing Robbie Earl said. "Rivalry? Yes. WCHA? Yes … But that's going to make the series even better."

Take the Western Collegiate Hockey Association title race, for example. The Badgers (19-6-1 overall, 14-4-0 WCHA) are three points behind Colorado College with two games in hand, making for a regular season title race that should go down to the wire.

Minnesota, on the other hand, dropped back in the standings after hitting a recent downward spiral. Ranked No. 1 earlier in the year, the Gophers (19-10-0, 12-8-0) have now lost six of their last nine (including two sweeps at home). With their conference title hopes fading, the Gophers focus may be redoubled by the next best thing — denying their historic rivals the honor.

"For a battle like this it's great timing," goalie Bernd Bruckler said. "We're really in the thick of the WCHA schedule and both teams are trying to get to the top of the league. It's exciting for us."

Should the Badgers' six-game winning streak come to an end versus Minnesota, their title hopes could be dealt a severe blow. Nothing would make the Gophers happier. Conversely, few things could motivate the Badgers more than avoiding this dishonor.

Not enough to make this series as heated as any in memory? Then take a look back to early November, when Minnesota swept UW in Mariucci Arena, and the circumstances surrounding the Friday night matchup.

With the game winding down and the score tied, Badger forward Andrew Joudrey was called for a penalty after expertly defending a breakaway against Gopher forward Danny Irmen. The subsequent controversial penalty shot saw Irmen tally the winning score and the Badgers resigned to what they felt was an undeserved loss.

"We have it in the back of our minds that we lost two games up there," Bruckler said. "We want to get back and get on the winning track against them."

While on the topic of history any Badger fan can tell you that Irmen's penalty shot is just the latest in a string of incidents that have fueled the bad blood between these schools for the last half-century. From Billy Butters' clipping of the UW band's trombone horns in the 1960s to the feud between coaching legends Bob Johnson and Herb Brooks, animosity is in the air when these two teams hit the ice.

"I've been growing up in Madison, I know it's always a big rivalry," defenseman Matt Olinger said. "Every time they [Minnesota and Wisconsin] play it's big, but especially this time with all that is going on in the league — every team is pretty close and in one weekend everything could change. It's as big as it's ever been I think."

Feud or no feud, though, the Gophers will not be easy to defeat. Sophomore Ryan Potulny is tied for fourth in the nation with 20 goals and, together with Irmen, gives the Gophers a lethal scoring combination. Junior Tyler Hirsch, tied for third in the nation with 24 assists, will warrant significant defensive attention as well.

Wisconsin is not a team that will be intimidated by gaudy offensive numbers, however. The Badger blue liners, feared to be the weak link entering the season, have developed into a solid group that, along with Bruckler, forms one of the best defenses in the nation, allowing an average of less than two goals per game.

One of the more interesting matchups of the week will be on special teams, where the Badgers' top rated penalty kill unit will square off with Potulny, whose 12 power play goals lead the nation.

As head coach Mike Eaves has said in the past, though, the top penalty killer is the guy in net. And as of late, that guy has been stifling. Bruckler and Brian Elliott each blanked the Fighting Irish two weekends ago and tied the UW record for number of shutouts in a season with six.

"We have one of the best defenses in the nation and we take pride in that," Bruckler said. "We did our pre-scout on (Minnesota), we know what's coming. We definitely respect them."

History, revenge, ambition and, as always, pride fuel the fires of these nemeses. The Kohl Center is already sold out both nights and those in the college hockey world now know what Gopher and Badger supporters already knew — this weekend, there is no better show than in Madison.

The puck drops Friday and Saturday night at 7:07 pm.

What: No. 3 Wisconsin (19-6-1 overall, 14-4-0 WCHA) v. No. 8 Minnesota (19-10-0, 12-8-0)
When: 7:07 p.m., Friday, Feb. 4 and Saturday, Feb. 5.
Where: Kohl Center (15,237) in Madison.
Broadcasts: Fox Sports North will televise each game live. Tape-delayed broadcast on Wisconsin Public Television. Live radio WIBA AM 1310 in Madison. will provide an audio broadcast of the game live on the Web.
Series notes: Minnesota leads the all-time series 141-74-15. The Badgers posted three points in a series with Minnesota early last season but have since lost four straight to the Gophers, all at Mariucci Arena.

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