When the Gophers and Wisconsin face off in a Border Battle men’s hockey series on Friday and Saturday, the 3M Arena at Mariucci audiences will see two of the nation’s youngest teams looking to mature quickly.
So far, Wisconsin has a slight edge in that department, and the Gophers will try to close the gap during the second of three consecutive home series.
Though the Badgers enter with a 6-6 record and sit in sixth place in the seven-team Big Ten, they’ve shown flashes of high-end play. Wisconsin swept two-time defending national champion Minnesota Duluth 6-2 and 3-1 in mid-October, and last weekend handed No. 4 Notre Dame its first loss of the season, 3-0 on Friday before falling 5-4 in overtime in the series finale.
The Gophers, meanwhile, enter with a 4-6-2 mark after absorbing 8-2 and 6-3 home losses to Big Ten leader Penn State last weekend, a low point in coach Bob Motzko’s two seasons as head coach.
The difference between the two rivals?
“Their offense is ahead of ours,” Motzko said. “Their young guys are scoring, and confidence comes with that.”
Indeed. The Badgers feature seven freshmen, led by 2019 first-round NHL draft picks Cole Caufield and Alex Turcotte, a pair of stars from the U.S. national team development program. Wisconsin is averaging 3.67 goals per game, which ranks ninth nationally, and has a power play converting at 23.1%, which is 14th in the nation.
Caufield, selected No. 15 overall by Montreal, amassed records of 72 single-season goals and 126 career goals on the Ann Arbor-based development team. He’s started fast with the Badgers, too, leading the team with nine goals and adding six assists. Joining Caufield with 15 points as Wisconsin’s co-leader in scoring is Turcotte, selected No. 5 overall by Los Angeles. Turcotte had 27 goals and 35 assists in 37 games last season for the U.S. development team and has six goals and nine assists for the Badgers.
Throw in Owen Lindmark (4-6-10), a fifth-round pick by Florida, and Dylan Holloway (2-4-6), an expected first-round pick in 2020, and the Badgers have a lot of young firepower. Six freshmen skaters have accounted for 21 of the team’s 44 goals.
The Gophers have eight freshman skaters who’ve played, and they’ve combined for six of the team’s 29 goals. Minnesota’s top scorers among freshmen are forward Ben Meyers (1-5-6) and defenseman Jackson LaCombe (0-5-5). Minnesota’s 2.42 goals per game ranks 41st among the 60 Division I teams.
“Our young guys aren’t there yet,” Motzko said, “but they’re going to be there. We’re working toward that.”
The track record supports Motzko’s opinion. Meyers, for example, had 33 goals and 32 assists for Fargo of the USHL last season. Bryce Brodzinski, who’s still seeking his first collegiate goal, had 36 goals and 54 assists in 28 games for Blaine High School last season.
“Zero concern, because he’s going to score,” Motzko said of Brodzinski. “We thought he had a very good weekend [against Penn State].”
Making sure his players keep an upbeat and focused attitude even if the goals aren’t coming is one of Motzko’s challenges as the Gophers try to bump their record back to .500.
“When a goal-scorer is not scoring, the first thing you want to know is where their mood’s at. You’re ornery. It’s not perfect, but they’re still up,” he said. “… You stay positive and you keep working, and they are doing that.”
Staff writer Jerry Zgoda contributed to this report.