Minnesota hosts defending champions

Mark Remme

Holding on to the nation’s longest unbeaten streak, Minnesota’s men’s hockey team will not only get a crack at last year’s national champion, but also one of its biggest rivals.

The Gophers, ranked No. 1 in the USA Today Coaches poll and No. 2 in the USCHO.com rankings, face No. 13/14 Wisconsin this weekend at Mariucci Arena.

The Western Collegiate Hockey Association series will take place Saturday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m. and features one powerful offense against one stone-cold defense.

But for veteran border-battle players like junior forward Ben Gordon, all statistics and rankings are put on the back burner.

This series, he said, comes down to Minnesota versus Wisconsin – plain and simple.

“It’s one of the most exciting games you’re going to play all year,” Gordon said. “It’s exciting, it’s high tempo – high pace. Emotions run high and it’s a lot of fun.”

And it’s happening at a point in time where, at least on paper, the two teams couldn’t look any more different.

Minnesota (8-1-2 overall, 4-0-2 WCHA) struggled to two ties last weekend against St. Cloud State but has otherwise rolled in its current 10-game unbeaten streak.

Wisconsin (4-6-2, 3-4-1) lost its six top scorers from a year ago and has battled injuries throughout the young season.

Badgers sophomore forward Jack Skille, the team’s second-leading returning scorer from a year ago, is expected to miss action again this week. He hyperextended his right elbow against North Dakota on Oct. 13 and has missed the last nine games.

The results have been less than stellar. The Badgers have five fewer wins than they had through 12 games last year and were swept at home against Denver last weekend.

“I know they’re going to be hungry,” junior defenseman Derek Peltier said. “I’m sure (last weekend’s sweep) does not sit well with them in their locker room.”

But freshman defenseman Erik Johnson said when these two teams match up, nothing matters besides what happens on the ice.

“The thing we kinda look at is rankings don’t matter right now,” Johnson said. “The only thing we’re going to be working on this weekend is getting four points.”

The fact that Wisconsin is struggling in the win column has nothing to do with the defense.

Senior goaltender and 2006 Hobey Baker finalist Brian Elliott is harboring a 2.05 goals against average, while his team is mustering just 2.0 goals per game.

Elliot’s efforts have kept the Badgers in games. They’ve played five overtime games and have played in seven games decided by one goal or less.

The Gophers traveled a much different path to this weekend as Minnesota is averaging 4.5 goals per game while giving up just 2.1 goals per game this season.

The solid defenses on both sides should result in a low scoring series, and coach Don Lucia knows it.

“We know how good Wisconsin is defensively,” Lucia said. “We know it’ll be a 2-1, 3-2 type game.”

Lucia said going head-to-head with last season’s best team is a big matchup, but the hype for this early season game shouldn’t lose perspective on how long the season lasts.

“They’re the defending national champions and we’re trying to knock the crown off them, but you don’t do that in November,” Lucia said. “We’re fighting for points, and our team is trying to get better.”