Gophers coach Don Lucia has often said his favorite road trip is to Grand Forks, N.D., to play the Sioux. But also high on his list is the bus ride to Madison, Wis. to play the Badgers.
"It is a good environment. It is always one of my favorite trips of the season," Lucia said Monday on his weekly radio show on WCCO. "I like the support they get. The fans get on you but there is nothing -- there is no swearing. It is not abusive. They just have a good time at the game."
The Badgers are averaging 13,068 fans per game. And their student section is one of the biggest in the WCHA, with 2,780 seats on one end of the rink divided between three levels. Students stand throughout the game, often jumping and chanting.
"So it is a fun environment to play in," Lucia said. "Another Big Ten opponent. And I am sure the game will be sold out this weekend, so it will be a lot of fun. We've done pretty well over the years. The last few years, We've lost on Friday, but found a way to come back on Saturdays and win."
(Heard a college hockey expert on a sports talk show Tuesday say there is a 50 percent chance there will be a Big Ten Conference and almost spilt my cup of coffee. Everyone I've talked to, from WCHA sources on down, say it is more like 90, 95 percent a done deal that a Big Ten Conference will be formed for 2014-15. But I digress ... )
Here is how Gophers have done against Badgers in the careers of the seniors on both teams:
2007-08 ... four games within a month, Gophers and Badgers each score 11 games in series
Jan. 25 @ Wisconsin 3, Gophers 1 ........... L
Jan. 26 @ Wisconsin 2, Gophers, 2 OT ... T
Feb. 22 @ Gophers 4, Wisconsin 2 ............ W
Feb. 23 @ Gophers 4, Wisconsin 4, OT .... T
2008-09 ... series starts with third OT in four games
Oct. 24 @ Wisconsin 2, Gophers 2, OT ..... T
Oct. 25 Gophers 5, @ Wisconsin 2 ............ W
Feb. 6 Wisconsin 3, @ Gophers 2 ............. L
Feb. 7 Wisconsin 5, @ Gophers 4 ............. L
2009-10 ... Badgers win first game, Gophers win second
Nov. 6 @ Wisconsin 4, Gophers 2 .......... L
Nov. 7 Gophers 5, @ Wisconsin 2 ............ W
Mar. 5 Wisconsin 3, @ Gophers 2 ............ L
Mar. 6 @ Gophers 6, Wisconsin 1 ............ W
Nov. 5 Wisconsin 6, @ Gophers 0 ............ L
Nov. 6 @ Gophers 3, Wisconsin 3, OT ..... T
Feb. 18 Gophers @ Wisconsin ???
Feb. 19 Gophers @ Wisconsin ???
So in the past 14 games, the Gophers are 4-6-4 against the Badgers, 2-2-2 at the Kohl Center.
WISCONSIN ON BUBBLE
The Badgers were rolling along nicely, seemingly on their way to a sure at-large bid in the NCAA tournament. They were 12-1 in their last 13 games until losing 4-1 and 4-3 at Nebraska Omaha last weekend.
So now the Gophers, with 21 points, are only three points behind fifth-place Wisconsin (24) in the WCHA standings.
What's even worse for the Badgers is that they dropped to a tie with Ferris State for No. 15 in the PairWise ratings, which mimic how the NCAA fills its NCAA field. At No. 15, the Badgers (who have the tie-breaker) are an iffy at-large pick.
"Seven points are the difference between fifth and 11th place," Lucia said, "so you can head up in the standings, and you can go down in a hurry based on what happens on a given weekend."
"We just want to continue to play well. Hopefully you can win Friday and put more pressure on going into the Saturday game. But we will be a little short-handed on Friday not having Jake Hansen [out after a game disqualification for fighting Saturday against Denver]. That is going to hurt. He has been playing very, very well. It kind of disrupts how you can practice because you know you are going to have him on Saturday, but not in a game on Friday.
"But that's the way it has been all year. It just seems week after week somebody is out and somebody is in. And last weekend was no different not having Jay [Barriball] and not having Nico [Sacchetti] with an illness. But other guys stepped in and did a good job."
Barriball had a knee injury, Sacchetti the flu. Barriball is expected back for Wisconsin, Sacchetti will be for sure.
"The [Badgers] are not a high-scoring team," Lucia said. "They have a great power play. And we are going to have to be very disciplined and work heavily on our penalty kill this weekend and not allow that to beat us this week."
Wisconsin is averaging 3.34 goals per game, fourth in the WCHA. The Gophers average 3.07 goals, seventh.
The Badgers' power play has scored 39 goals and is successful at a 23.9 percent clip, first in the WCHA. That could be a problem for the Gophers whose penalty kill is 12th in the conference -- and 56th nationally, ahead ofonly UMass-Lowell and Sacred Heart -- at 75.2 percent.
U IN PLAYOFFS MODE
"There is so little difference between teams," Lucia said. "A couple of players can put you over the top. And a goaltender playing well is really the difference right now. It is going to be a battle. Wisconsin has got us, they have to go to St. Cloud and finish with CC. People are going to be beating up on each other here at the end of the year.
"Like I told our guys, 'Our playoffs have started.' "
"They have a good senior goaltender. They don't give up many goals. They like to win a lot of games 3-2, and their power play has been very good, especially overall. Not quite as good in the league as they have been overall."
Senior goalie Scott Gudmandson leads the WCHA in goals-against average (1.93) and save percentage (.930) and is fourth and sixth nationally in those categories, respectively.
Junior forward Jordy Murray leads the Badgers with 10 power play goal, sophomore defenseman Justin Schultz has eight.
In their last meeting, on Nov. 6 at Mariucci Arena, the teams tied 3-3 in overtime.
"Kent [Patterson] played the second game and quite frankly, we should have won that game," Lucia said. "We were up 3-2 late and they had a wraparound that did Kent have [the puck] long enough or not?
"Being short-handed like we were, I thought our kids played very well with a lot of intensity, a lot of grit and that is what we are going to have to have going in there [this weekend]. We know we are not going to go in there and win a game 5-4. We have to go in there and our mindset has to be we are going to win a game 2-1 or 3-2. Because that is how it is going to happen if we are going to be successul."
Actually the Badgers might not mind a few more goals. The have four players with more than 30 points, all are in the top 11 among WCHA players in scoring in all games:
Justin Schultz, soph D, 15-16--41 ... highest scoring defenseman in nation
Craig Smith, soph F, 16-21--37 ... played three seasons for Waterloo in USHL
Mark Zengerle, fr. F, 5-29--34 ... Badgers found him playing for Salmon Arm in Br. Columbia Hockey League
Jake Gardiner, jr. D, 8-24-32 ... former Minnetonka standout, brother Max is a forward for Gophers
Those four rank second, fourth, eighth and 11th in the WCHA in scoring. ... The Gophers top scorer is senior forward Jay Barriball (12-11--23) at 34th.
* The Badgers defense is giving up only 2.12 goals per game, first in the WCHA; the Gophers give up 2.93 goals, eighth.
* The Gophers power play is seventh in the WCHA at 19.3 percent and compounding that problem is they don't get many power-play chances. They have 119, or 44 fewer than the Badgers. Wisconsin has 39 power-play goals, the Gophers 23, a difference of 16.
* Wisconsin's penalty kill is also among the league's worst at 81.6 percent, that's 10th.
* Patterson has a 2.57 goals-against average, seventh in the WCHA, and a .918 save percentage, fifth.
* Besides Barriball with 23 points, the Gophers also have three other players with at least 20. Thet are Jacob Cepis (8-15-23), Mike Hoeffel (11-9-20) and Erik Haula (5-15-20).
Yale is back at No. 1 in the PairWise rankings. Four WCHA teams are in the top 10 -- in good shape for an at-large NCAA bid right now. North Dakota is No. 3, Denver is tied for No. 4 with Merrimack and UMD is sixth.