Strength against strength at Mariucci

by Chris Lempesis

In hotly contested rivalries, it’s always nice if one team is very strong in one aspect of the game and the other is very strong in the completely opposite aspect.

Such is the case with Minnesota’s men’s hockey team and its weekend opponent, Wisconsin.

The Gophers will test their high-flying, high-scoring offense against the Badgers’ shutdown, lockdown defense in a two-game Western Collegiate Hockey Association set at Mariucci Arena. Game times are set for 7:07 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

“It’s a good matchup,” junior forward Danny Irmen said. “Powerful offense versus powerful defense.”

Indeed, both teams are strong in their respective areas of expertise. In this case, the numbers don’t lie.

For No. 4 Minnesota (7-3-4, 6-2-2 WCHA), it’s all about lighting the lamp. The Gophers bring in the WCHA’s top overall offense (3.79 goals per) and power play (23.5 percent). Individually, they also have the conference’s second-leading goal scorer in junior Ryan Potulny, with 11.

Meanwhile, top-ranked Wisconsin (11-1-2, 8-0-2 WCHA) has gotten by so far on its ability to keep the red light turned off.

The Badgers have the conference’s best overall defense (1.43 goals per game) and penalty kill (88.0 percent). Individually, they have been given a boost by junior goaltender Brian Elliott.

Elliott has, statistically, been the conference’s best goaltender this season. He leads in goals against average (1.41), save percentage (.942) and win percentage (.857).

But before you go thinking the Gophers are going to try to turn this weekend into a shootout to counteract that, coach Don Lucia said that’s not the case.

“What’s going to be important for us is playing well defensively more so than offensively,” Lucia said. “Because we know that goals are going to be at a premium. We can’t give up any easy ones to them or it’s going to make the mountain that much higher.”

Minnesota has been working on defense in practice this week and senior defenseman P.J. Atherton said that as well-known as Minnesota is for its offense, the team’s defense is capable of playing with the Badgers.

That being said, Minnesota isn’t necessarily looking to play grind-it-out, Badgers-style hockey this weekend.

Doing that would more than likely allow Wisconsin to dictate the tempo of the game, something the Badgers have done throughout their ongoing nation-best 12-game unbeaten streak (10-0-2).

And if the Gophers want to extend their own six-game unbeaten streak (4-0-2) ” the nation’s second best ” against arguably their biggest rival, they’ll have to do what they do best: play Gophers hockey. This, in short, means denting the twine.

“You gotta worry about yourselves more than (Wisconsin),” Irmen said.

“I think we just gotta go play our game and we’ll be fine.”