Five for ’15: Border Battle

Ben Gotz

Despite coming off a road sweep, tensions weren't high when the Gophers met with the media on Wednesday.

When head coach Don Lucia arrived, he joked about none of the local sports teams seemed to be able to buy a win in the last few weeks (though the Timberwolves were at least able to break their losing streak last night).

The Gophers themselves have come nowhere close to a 15 game losing streak like the Timberwolves, but the team that started the season No. 1 in the polls was just swept on the road and is 3-6-1 in their last 10.

But despite the recent setbacks, senior forward Seth Ambroz said the team's expectations have not changed since the beginning of the year.

"Absolutely not. Obviously, you want to be there at the end," Ambroz said. "We have the ability, we have the talent, we just have to find our game here."

As the Gophers try to find their stride again this weekend against the Badgers, here's five tings happening around Gopher hockey heading into the border battle.

1. Lucia Defends Wilcox

Saturday night was a game to forget for Minnesota junior goaltender Adam Wilcox. Wilcox gave up five goals in less than two full periods against the Michigan Wolverines before being pulled for freshman goaltender Nick Lehr.

In total, Wilcox allowed nine goals to the Wolverines on the Gophers road trip, and was pulled for only the second time in his college career. 

But because weekends like the one against Michigan don't happen often to Wilcox, Lucia isn't worried about his starting netminder.

"Adam’s been a model of consistency since he’s been here," Lucia said. "He’s been our starting goalie for two and a half plus years and in that time I can really probably, there’s been two games where he’s been a little bit off in that time. You can go through any NHL goalie that plays and you’re going to have off nights, and Adam had a little bit of an off night but at the same time I’m sure we did a whole lot in front of him to help him out."

Wilcox, a second team All-American last year, is currently ranked 40th in goals against average in college hockey, but Lucia said Wilcox isn't likely to stay down for long.

"I know one thing, that I want Adam in my foxhole any time I’m going to battle," Lucia said. "He’ll rebound and Adam is the least of my worries."

2. Offense Hurting Defense

One of the reasons Wilcox's goals against average has suffered is also due to the fact that the skaters in front of him haven't always helped him out in the past few weeks.

"We turned it over way too much last weekend," junior defenseman Brady Skjei said. "We left Adam out to dry a few times."

According to Lucia, the team's struggles to generate offense, especially five-on-five, played a part in the team's defensive performance last weekend.

"I think at times this past weekend since it’s been a struggle on offense, maybe at times we’re cheating defense to try to create offense and that’s going to hurt you in the long run too," Lucia said. "We have to make sure that defense still has to be a foundation. Let’s make sure that we defend well. The harder we defend, the sooner we’re going to get the puck back and then we can go on offense. The amount of turnovers and odd man rushes this weekend, we just can’t play that way."

3. Wisconsins Woes

Skjei said that Wisconsin was becoming his second favorite rivalry behind North Dakota, but the Badgers haven't provided much competition for many of their opponents this year.

In college hockey, Wisconsin has the No. 54 offense and the No. 52 defense. Their power play is ranked No. 56, while their penalty kill is ranked one spot lower at No. 57. The team's struggles have come with being young, with 17 players on their roster in their first or second year of eligibility.

But the Gophers know that with their opponent being down right now, they'll fight hard for points in conference play. Points the Gophers need too.

"Well I think both teams definitely need the points for sure," Skjei said. "Us getting swept last weekend hurt us in the Big Ten standings so we need some points here. We’re not going to expect anything less than a good Wisconsin team. They always usually bring it when they’re here."

4. Ambroz Getting Active

Saturday against Michigan, Ambroz knocked in his second goal of the season. It was a long time coming for a player who had scored 14 during his junior season, and Lucia said maybe it would spark Ambroz to keep scoring.

"That’s what you hope gets him going," Lucia said. "You throw one in, it goes off a guy. It’s only his second of the year but sometimes that’s all you need to jumpstart."

Lucia has said often during the season that players who scored last season needed to score more for the current Gophers team, and those comments were almost certainly at least partially directed at Ambroz.

Playing the Badgers could help Ambroz continue to score points, as Ambroz scored five of his goals last season against the Badgers, including four in the two games at Mariucci.

"I get excited to play Wisconsin, as everyone does," Amrboz said. "I’ve been lucky enough for the puck to go in against these guys and hopefully it stays that way."

5. Hockey Day Minnesota 

The Gophers will play the Badgers late at Mariucci Arena on Friday at 8 p.m., and then return for an earlier afternoon game on Saturday as a part of Hockey Day Minnesota.

The Gophers will be the middle ground in the annual television event on Fox Sports North, their game sandwiched between outdoor high school hockey and the Minnesota Wild game against the Phoenix Coyotes.

"It’s a little bigger stage, and you got probably a little more people watching than normal," Skjei said. "Its’ fun watching the high school guys go play on the outdoor ponds. It’s a great day, and it’s fun to watch."