U hopes Wisconsin will be gracious host

by Tim Nichols

The Gophers men’s hockey team has been here before — injured and embarrassed, coming off a series in which they played below expectations.
Last season, Michigan Tech swept Minnesota on the road. Last weekend, St. Cloud State escaped the National Hockey Center with a last-second win.
After the Michigan Tech series, Wisconsin was what the ailing Gophers needed as they dominated the Badgers in a 4-1, 7-0 sweep. This weekend, Minnesota’s medicine could be waiting at the Kohl Center.
“The players know the rivalry,” Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer said. “Certain players get up especially for this game. The Minnesota kids do, the Wisconsin kids grow up with it and the Canadians will know all about it.”
The Gophers have plenty to think about heading into the series, including junior Rico Pagel’s knee injury, which will keep him out four to six weeks. Turnovers were also a problem against St. Cloud State, but coach Doug Woog stands by his defense.
“I thought our defense played well,” Woog said. “We just made an inappropriate decision at the end of the game. I thought our defense played the best part of the game Saturday.”
Defenseman Mike Lyons added the inexperience of the Gophers on the road might have played into their misfortune.
“I don’t think our team is worried about turnovers right now,” Lyons said. “Against St. Cloud it happened, but it was the first time we were on the road, and we had a lot of young guys. I think up until then our turnovers haven’t been a problem.”
Although Minnesota will try not to beat itself, there is that little detail of the team across the ice.
“Wisconsin has a great squad,” Lyons said. “(Steve) Reinprecht is who I will personally watch over anyone else.”
The Badgers captain and junior center scored 19 goals with 24 assists last year. He is a force on the rink with his unique play-making ability.
Reinprecht has jumped out of the gates a little slow, however, managing only one assist in three games.
“He’s a very gifted goal scorer,” Sauer said. “He’s very skilled and is our returning leading scorer. We’re looking at him like Minnesota looks at Reggie (Berg) and Wyatt (Smith).”
And so far, Berg and Smith are the only ones who have been putting the puck in the net consistently for the Gophers. With the injury to Pagel, Smith will still center the first line, but Berg, along with freshmen John Pohl and Pat O’Leary, will center the second, third and fourth lines.
This shake up could be what Minnesota needs to develop a balanced scoring attack. But don’t hold your breath, Woog says.
“It also became pretty evident that our balance in scoring wasn’t any better,” Woog said. “And we may not get any scoring now. Reggie is scoring, so is Wyatt. Some of the other guys need to start.”
Just as important as the players who will have to score are the players with the responsibility to keep the puck out of harm’s way — the goaltenders.
For Friday night’s matchup, Minnesota will go with Adam Hauser, while Wisconsin will have sophomore Graham Melanson between the pipes.
Melanson is a solid goalie, but has been relatively untested in his first three starts. In three games, he let in six goals on 62 shots.
“Teams haven’t scored against us so far,” Sauer said. “It hasn’t been one of those things where he’s been bombarded by shots. But we’ve got confidence in him.”
The Gophers’ netminder is also untested, but is smoking nonetheless.
Hauser won his last two starts and has an impressive shutout streak of a shade over three and one-half periods. But this will be his first ever action on the road.
“It’s going to be tough,” Hauser said. “Wisconsin is a tough place to play, and they have that brand new center. I’ve got to be ready and I can’t get ahead of myself.”
Since Woog hasn’t named a starter for Saturday’s game, could this be the game where Hauser makes his claim for the full-time starting position?
“I don’t think this series will be a benchmark (for Hauser),” Woog said. “He’s going to be a good goaltender. We need to develop some depth. They are both young in terms of experience.”
But when the Gophers and the Badgers get together, experience really doesn’t matter all too much. These are two teams, and two states, that have never really liked each other.