Mention the words “championship atmosphere” to Minnesota’s men’s hockey team in reference to its series with fifth-ranked Wisconsin this weekend, and you won’t get as many crazy looks as you’d think.
It is, after all, only the first weekend in November. But with Wisconsin back on college hockey’s short list for the first time in four years, the Gophers’ emotions have been stoked again.
The Gophers (5-2-0, 3-1-0 WCHA) and Badgers (5-1-0, 3-1-0) play at 7:05 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Mariucci Arena.
“This is probably the one I get most excited for,” center Gino Guyer said. “Even on the WCHA schedule, Wisconsin is set up as our rival. They’re the one team we’re guaranteed to play four times a year. It’s early, but it will be intense.”
It also doesn’t hurt the buildup that the man attaching championship significance to this weekend is Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves.
Two years ago, you’d sooner have heard those words coming from Eaves’ mouth than a Madison, Wis., native passing up a bratwurst.
But the Badgers are back on the map, and Eaves said the best litmus test for his team – which includes 17 freshman and sophomores – will be this weekend’s trip to Mariucci Arena.
“We’ve got eight new players who have never been in that environment,” said Eaves, a former assistant for the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins. “It’s not the end-all, be-all. But it is certainly parallel to a championship series in terms of intensity.”
Eaves would know. He started for Wisconsin during the heat of the border battle – the twice-a-year feuds between Herb Brooks and Bob Johnson in the mid-1970s.
And while Wisconsin’s career points leader doesn’t have his team back to the level of the two WCHA champion teams he played for, Eaves is overseeing a Badgers team that is rapidly squeezing its way into the conference’s top half again.
After replacing Jeff Sauer in 2002, Eaves stumbled to a 13-23-4 record and eighth place in the WCHA in his first season.
But last year, the Badgers rode All-American goaltender Bernd Bruckler to a third-place finish in the conference and a trip to the NCAA East Regional final.
Eaves was named the U.S. College Hockey Online coach of the year for his efforts.
“One thing about working with kids this age is it’s not fair to put a limit on them,” said Eaves, who played five seasons for the Minnesota North Stars. “We talked about a quantum leap last year. But I don’t think anyone thought it would happen like it did.”
And because Eaves has the Badgers back on the map, there are few Gophers downplaying a series four months from the end of the WCHA season.
“You try not to think about it, but it does (stick out),” forward Danny Irmen said. “Championship intensity might be a little far, but at the same time, it could be there.”
Hagemo out, Sertich iffy
Gophers coach Don Lucia said defenseman Nate Hagemo, who suffered a neck injury during last weekend’s series with Minnesota State-Mankato, will miss the Wisconsin series.
Hagemo didn’t practice all week, and former Gophers defenseman Paul Martin – trying to stay in shape during the NHL lockout – skated in his place with P.J. Atherton on Wednesday.
Forward Andy Sertich practiced for the first time Wednesday after injuring his right leg last weekend, but Lucia said he wasn’t sure about Sertich’s status for the Wisconsin series.