Once teammates, Vanek and Bruckler now foes

Graz, Austria, natives Thomas Vanek and Bernd Bruckler went head-to-head over the weekend, with each seeing success.

Lou Raguse

This weekend’s men’s hockey series in Wisconsin was dominated by a pair of Austrians. And not just any Austrians; Minnesota’s Thomas Vanek and Wisconsin’s Bernd Bruckler were best friends growing up in their hometown of Graz, Austria.

The pair lived just down the road from each other and played youth hockey together. Vanek, the offensive star, would get their team the lead. Goaltender Bruckler would maintain it.

Now, as standouts on their respective college hockey teams, Vanek and Bruckler are developing a friendly rivalry. Vanek still shoots for the lead, but now Bruckler is trying to prevent it.

Last season, as Bruckler split time with Scott Kabotoff, Vanek scored one goal while the Gophers dominated the Badgers in the two series.

This season, with their respective teams more evenly matched, the two friends got a better look into the rivalry.

After Friday’s tie game in which Vanek scored two goals on his pal, it was hard to say who had bragging rights.

“I’ll have bragging rights if we win tomorrow,” Vanek said after the first game. “But other than that, there’s really nothing to talk about.”

For much of Friday’s game, it appeared Vanek would have much to talk about.

Shortly into the second period, Vanek took a perfect pass from forward Garrett Smaagaard and converted it into Minnesota’s second goal.

Later that period, Vanek beat Bruckler on the power play, scoring on a slap shot from the right circle.

Then it was Bruckler’s turn. The junior stopped every ensuing Minnesota shot to total 32 saves in the game, allowing his teammates to come back and end the game in a stalemate.

Saturday’s matchup was much of the same. Vanek came out poorly defended in the first period and scored two fairly easy goals on Bruckler.

But Bruckler’s 39 saves – eight of which came on Vanek shots – gave the Badgers the time they needed to tie and eventually win Saturday’s game.

“He bought us time to get our feet on the ground,” Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said. “Minnesota dictated the pace and we were back on our heels.”

Vanek admitted Bruckler won the first round of this season’s rivalry, which is what happens when the breaks seem to go all go one way.

“Bruckler had a good game, but at the same time he got lucky a lot of times,” Vanek said. “But hey, good goalies get breaks too, and we’re not getting those right now as a team.”

Round two comes January 30-31 in Minneapolis.

Help from new friends

Vanek’s standout play this weekend was highlighted by the fact he skated with two new linemates. When Lucia drew up his new lines last week in practice, he put Vanek with juniors Jake Fleming and Smaagaard.

After the Wisconsin games, Lucia was pleased with the results.

“They played very well last weekend, and they played well again tonight, especially Garrett,” Lucia said. “He’s making more plays, so he deserves more ice time.”

So far this season, Fleming and Smaagaard have played primarily on Minnesota’s fourth line. But, as Lucia pointed out last week, the Gophers no longer have a difference between their first and fourth lines.

Vanek said he likes playing with the two forwards.

“Fleming and Smaagaard are high-energy guys, they have a lot of skill and some people don’t know that,” Vanek said. “We get the puck down low and we cycle it very well.”