Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Leftovers From The Wisconsin Series

When your team wins in the Border Battle, it's a quality win.

“It’s always exciting to win in overtime. That’s why they call it sudden death,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia on Friday following Justin Kloos' overtime winner. “It was a good win for us.”

"Huge win for our program, our fans," was how Wisconsin redshirt senior Corbin McGuire summed up Saturday's win.

Both Minnesota and Wisconsin played similar games with two different results. The Gophers both nights dominated the first period before the Badgers came back in the second period to tie the game at 2. On Friday, Minnesota re-took the lead. On Saturday, Wisconsin needed 89 seconds to grab it back and take the game in a different direction.

You can read Friday and Saturday's recaps from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, along with an audio accompaniment from Madison.

Here are some other leftover thoughts that didn't make the newspaper.

1. Kohl Center matches Wisconsin's on-ice performance, for better or worse

Last year my trip to Madison resulted in a column on the Badgers' slow downfall under then-head coach Mike Eaves and how sad it was to be at Kohl Center. It wasn't an issue caused by off-ice grievances, but one where the remaining fans were going through the apathy-filled motions of a team that had won 12 games in 2 years. That became especially apparent when the Gophers defeated Wisconsin 9-2, scoring 12 seconds into the game and 4 goals in 11:46.

A season-high listed crowd of 13,616 quickly evaporated into legions of red seats.

Fifty-two weeks later the announced crowd of 14,868 on Saturday made itself known. The student section went from one level filled in 2016's trip to two full and parts of the third. Even during Friday's overtime game that went the way of the road team, the Kohl Center felt closer to the give and take of past Border Battles.

"It's the opposite end of the spectrum," said McGuire on Saturday.

He's not wrong.

One of the major points made in my column was regardless of whether Eaves got a third chance or was replaced (as it turned out he was fired 12 hours after Wisconsin's season ended), the rebuilding job had to also deal with re-invigorating a fanbase that had turned off and didn't care.

Like the team under Tony Granato, Don Granato and Mark Osiecki it's still a work in progress with some signs of optimism. This iteration of the Badgers is more exciting to watch and features an offense which went from giving up more shots than any other Big Ten team to being in the top-ten in Corsi Close. One the biggest changes on the ice? The Badgers have yet to lose consecutive games this season.

1a. Minnesota held senior Grant Besse out of the goal column in both games. Besse, who has nine goals in 14 games against the Gophers, had not been denied a goal in a game Wisconsin scored one since his freshman year.

1b. I'd be remiss to note the large number of Minnesota fans who made the trip to Madison. Every Gopher goal came with an audible "Rouser" celebration. Walks throughout the college town showed off more than its fair share of Minnesota sweaters.

It wouldn't be a trip to Madison without at least two people working at a restaurant asking where I'm from and saying, "I'm from Minnesota too!"

2. Gates the assist maker

Brent Gates Jr. tripled his assist output this weekend, going from one to three.

Both nights the sophomore forward created a turnover in the Minnesota offensive zone before passing to a teammate who shot the puck between the goalie's legs. Friday's featured a saucer pass to Tyler Sheehy. Saturday's saw Gates make a move on McGuire to get around and create space for an open Mike Szmatula.

What led to both assists was similar to how Gates has more than tripled his goal output. He's a little faster, a little stronger and getting to pucks where he wouldn't be as a freshman.

Minnesota was at its best when its wingers were getting to pucks and making the most out of space given by the Badgers defense. Until Justin Kloos' last minute power play goal Saturday, every time the Gophers lit the lamp it came within 10 feet of the net.

2a. On the scoring side of things, Gates also changed Saturday's game although not the way the Gophers or him would have liked. Gates hit the post with approximately 12 minutes remaining in the second period. Minnesota led 2-1 at the time. Instead of going up 3-1, two minutes later Wisconsin's Cameron Hughes tied the game.

2b. Kloos' explanation of his no-goal call with Szmatula can be read here. Both players had two good games on the weekend - it was no surprise to see Minnesota's captain end up with the OT winner, his third in as many seasons.

3. Minnesota's defense shining

The Gophers got off to fast starts both nights in the first periods with 18-6 and 16-9 shot totals. If not for a late wake-up Friday by the Badgers it would have been even more lopsided (attempts were 28-16).

Both nights Wisconsin woke up from self-imposed shot suppression and showed why the team is capable of out-shooting opponents. Minnesota was successful Friday in blocking shots, clearing players out of the area in front of Eric Schierhorn, and breaking up scoring attempts.

The end result was blocking a season-high 29 shots. One of the biggest came in the final seconds when Jake Bischoff laid out to get in front a one-timer, but it was representative of Minnesota's blue line over the final 40+ minutes. When the Gophers are able to control possession and suppress shots on goal the team has a recipe for success.

4. Minnesota's defense breaking down

Saturday? Not so much. The Gophers blocked a total of 8 shots to Wisconsin's 17. Rebounds weren't cleared. Many of the defensive breakdowns resulted in odd-man rushes or forced Schierhorn to make a magnificent save.

Minnesota's streak of 29 straight penalties killed came to an end on the ensuing face-off following Schierhorn going left to right to stop Ryan Wagner.

“Eric had been playing really well and now you’re down 3-2. Then we completely fell asleep on the face-off at the end of the power play and let the guy walk right in front of us and score a goal, 4-2," said Lucia. "We had mental breakdowns. Even their first goal was one-on-one and the guy beats us to the net.”

It's no coincidence that Minnesota's winning streak featured six games where the Gophers gave up 2 goals or less against teams in the bottom-20 of total offense.

5. Same story, new decade

Wisconsin's victory Saturday snapped a seven-game winning streak by the Gophers, the longest consecutive stretch of wins for Minnesota since the 2006-07 season. Oddly enough, the Badgers and Kohl Center were the same team and locale where Minnesota's previous 7 game winning streak ended. (Wisconsin's 2-1 win on 1/13/07 also ended a Minnesota program-high 22 game unbeaten streak.)

Minnesota leads the Big Ten after Ohio State, without leading scorers Nick Schilkey and Tanner Laczynski, took 5 of 6 points on the road from then-#1 Penn State. (The Gophers' win in the Big Ten season opener remains the only road defeat this season for Ohio State.) Wisconsin sits six points back with two games in hand. Those will be used this weekend when OSU hosts the Badgers in Columbus and New York City.

Strangely this will be the first common opponent between the Buckeyes and Gophers. It's almost February!

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