The Gophers have had Feb. 17 circled on their calendars since the beginning of the hockey season. This week, amid the anticipation of Sunday's outdoor game in Chicago, their coaches underlined another important date not to be overlooked.
That would be Friday, when the No. 2 Gophers begin a critical WCHA series against Wisconsin. The Gophers have two games in hand on the other teams contending for the league championship, including first-place St. Cloud State and second-place North Dakota. Both those teams are off this weekend, so the third-place Gophers can move up a spot in the standings and solidify their position for a title run over the final three weeks of the regular season.
On Sunday, the Gophers will finally play the 18th-ranked Badgers at Soldier Field in their first outdoor game of the modern era. While that game has been the primary topic of conversation this week, coach Don Lucia has urged his players to be just as excited about Friday's game at the Kohl Center in Madison.
"It's something we've stressed since Monday, that we'll worry about the Chicago game on Saturday," Lucia said. "This is our weekend to catch up. Those games in hand are great, but you've still got to win them.
"We've talked about this five-game stretch on the road and how critical it is to have success. They're certainly not easy places to play. We're 2-1 right now, and we feel good about what we've done so far. We hope to close out the five-game stretch on a positive note."
The Gophers began their string of road games at Minnesota State Mankato with a 4-1 victory, then split at St. Cloud State last weekend. Only six points separate the top seven teams in the league.
The Badgers, beset by injuries all season, have rallied since a 2-2 tie and 3-1 loss at Mariucci Arena in mid-November. They began the season with only one victory in their first 11 games, but an 11-2-4 run has catapulted them into a three-way tie for fifth place in the WCHA -- one point behind the Gophers.
Wisconsin is nearly back to full strength and hopes to have sophomore defenseman Jake McCabe in the lineup this weekend after he missed two games because of an ankle injury.
Defenses could rule
This series will showcase the WCHA's two best defenses, leading Lucia to predict that goaltending and special-teams play will make the difference. The Gophers are surrendering 1.93 goals per game, the Badgers 2.04.
But the Gophers hold a clear advantage on the power play and penalty kill. Injuries have riddled the Badgers' top power-play unit, a major reason why they have converted on only nine of 86 chances -- putting them on pace for the lowest success rate (10.5 percent) in program history.
The Gophers lead the league with 32 power-play goals on 127 attempts (25.2 percent). Their penalty kill also tops the WCHA at 88.5 percent, while Wisconsin is eighth at 81.2.
Lucia said special teams become particularly important late in the season, as defenses improve. Erik Haula, who has assisted on three power-play goals in the past three games, credited the Gophers' success to familiarity. Kyle Rau and Nate Schmidt have 16 points apiece on the power play, tying them for second place in the WCHA, and Haula is tied for fifth with 14.
"Wisconsin is a very good defensive team," Haula said. "They try to stay patient and frustrate the opponent. So when we get our chance on the [power play], it's going to be huge.
"We've had the same power play together for a really long time, and we know what we need to do to be successful. We'll try new things here and there as the end of the year comes along, just so we can give different looks. We've got a lot of skill and a lot of good players on both units. It's all about executing."