Men’s hockey looks to cool off Wisconsin

Aaron Kirscht

The Gophers men’s hockey team is reeling. Minnesota is 17 points behind first-place Wisconsin in the WCHA, coming off a sweep by Michigan Tech and playing without its captain.
And here’s coach Doug Woog, talking about cookies.
“It’s like a big Oreo with all that white between us,” Woog said of the space between Minnesota and the Badgers, this weekend’s opponent, in the standings. “It’s a Double-Stuf, I guess.”
At least Woog still has a sense of humor. During a season like this, the worst in his 13-year tenure, that’s almost a necessity. But a series with Wisconsin (19-6-1 overall, 14-3-1 in the WCHA) doesn’t exactly promote an outbreak of smiles.
The Badgers are on a nation-best 13-game unbeaten streak, with the only blemish being a tie with Minnesota-Duluth nearly a month ago. The Gophers (10-16, 6-12) briefly held a three-game winning streak. But that was before the debacle at Michigan Tech that left them five points out of fifth-place — the benchmark Minnesota must reach in order to host a playoff series next month.
The “must-win” mantra has been chanted at Mariucci Arena for the better part of the last month, with hit-and-miss results. Still, the fact remains: If the Gophers have any hope of remaining in whatever race is left for the fifth spot, they must gain at least a split with Wisconsin — and hope the teams above them, namely Minnesota-Duluth and Michigan Tech, falter.
“Winning is everything,” said junior Mike Anderson, who scored three goals last weekend. “People might say it’s not, but winning takes care of a lot of things, and that’s all I care about right now — getting some wins.”
Getting them against the Badgers won’t be easy.
Wisconsin has the offensive tools to hang with anyone in a shootout. Center Steve Reinprecht (11 goals, 14 assists in WCHA games) and defenseman Craig Anderson (4-18) are 1-2 in the league scoring race, with the Gophers’ Reggie Berg tied for second.
And, as usual, Wisconsin has a brick house between the pipes. Goaltenders Mike Valley, a sophomore, and freshman Graham Melanson have performed well beyond expectations.
“But the real key is that the team plays hard in front of both of them,” Badgers coach Jeff Sauer said. “It hasn’t mattered which one is in there, and that’s a real positive.”
Valley, the regular starter, is out for at least two weeks with cartilage damage in his knee, which means Melanson will put his 8-0 record — the best start ever for a Wisconsin freshman, and there have been plenty of good ones — on the line against Minnesota.
Senior forward Joe Bianchi won’t make the trip to Minneapolis, either, after separating his shoulder in the final minute of play against Alaska-Anchorage on Saturday.
That’s the first bit of bad news Sauer has received in quite a while. Past visits to Minnesota haven’t been very positive, either, as the Badgers are a paltry 1-12-3 in regular season games on the Gophers’ home ice in the ’90s.
But Wisconsin has yet to lose a WCHA game on the road this season, and the Gophers are not the team they’ve been for most of the decade. Everything looks to be in the Badgers’ favor, but Sauer isn’t thinking too big.
“I know Minnesota is looking at it as a chance to knock us off,” Sauer said, “maybe get a feather in their cap and get something going into the playoffs. But we just want to maintain where we are and give ourselves a chance to win the championship.”