Myers: For Badgers, Border Battle is just the latest trouble
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Minneapolis -- Before Gopher Nation gets a little too confident about their team's place in their most intense hockey rivalry, a little history will show that Wisconsin can claim some well-earned bragging rights as well. The Badgers have been to the national title game more recently (2010) and have won a NCAA crown more recently (2006) than the Gophers. And while five national championship banners hang from the rafters of both Mariucci Arena and the Kohl Center, there's a sixth one on display in Madison.
Still, if ever there was a "right time" for the Gophers to be hosting Wisconsin, this would seem to be it. While sporting a pedestrian 2-2-1 record away from home, Minnesota is still undefeated at Mariucci. By contrast, Wisconsin is reeling, having won just one game this season, suffering two rough losses at home the last time the Badgers played, and having lost their best player, and their top assistant coach, in the past two weeks.
"I think part of our world as coaches, in fact, is that change is part of the norm," said Badgers coach Mike Eaves this week when he met the media. "Whether it's an injury, whether you're traveling and have bad weather, whether it's the middle of the game and the referee makes a call you don't agree with. So I think, once again, change is a constant. We certainly had our moments of change this season already, with the latest being Coach Bill leaving."
The Bill in question is one-time Gophers tough guy and assistant coach Bill Butters, who abruptly departed Madison, returning home to White Bear Lake, after two-plus seasons at Eaves' side, running the Badgers defense. Not long after the Badgers surrendered eight goals in a pair of home losses to Colorado College, Butters announced he was following his heart, and his faith, departing the Wisconsin program to devote more of his time to his work with Hockey Ministries.
And that bad weekend versus CC didn't just feature losses on the scoreboard. Wisconsin's best forward, Mark Zengerle, suffered a broken hand while blocking a shot and will miss several weeks.
That left Eaves to juggle his lines, promote assistant coach Gary Shuchuk, and begin the search for another assistant, all while prepping for a trip to visit his team's archrivals. While the Gophers were getting a win and a tie at Alaska Anchorage, Wisconsin could hardly have picked a better time to have a weekend off.
"I was very pleased we didn't play this last weekend because the time was used in other areas, as you can well imagine," Eaves said. "The down side of that is the fact that you don't get yourself in a rhythm of playing, and we need some games."
They also need a few more games to tick off the schedule in order for hyped freshman Nic Kerdiles to finally make his collegiate hockey debut. Kerdiles will finally be eligible at the end of November after the NCAA suspended him, first for an entire season, then reduced it to 10 games, over what was ruled improper conduct with an agent.
The Badgers visit the big city at a time when injuries, ironically, have had a solidifying effect on the Gophers lineup, especially in the crease. Rookie goalie Adam Wilcox is the reigning WCHA Rookie of the Week after allowing just two goals last weekend in Alaska, and getting his second career shutout. Gophers coach Don Lucia figured Wilcox would start this weekend anyway, but then an injury forced his hand.
"He's going to be the guy for a while now," Lucia said on Wednesday. "(Michael) Shibrowski got dinged in practice (Tuesday) and he's going to be out for a while, so it's Adam's net."
The Badgers lineup has usually had a handful of Minnesotans in key roles, but that's changing. Native Wisconsinites actually out-number Minnesotans on Bucky's roster these days, while the Gophers assists leader, junior Nate Condon, has some extra incentive this weekend. Condon is bucking the historical trend, and is the third Wisconsin native to skate for the Gophers in the past decade.
"If I lose to the Badgers, when I go home I've got to hear about it," Condon said. "The couple weeks I'm in Wausau every year, if we lose to the Badgers that's all I hear about."
For Eaves, amid all of the noise and distractions surrounding his program, he's heard plenty about Minnesota as well, and knows his team's collective hands will be full come Friday.
"They probably have the most depth at forward in our league, in terms of ability and talent...So that's the first thing that jumps off," Eaves said. "It's more of what we see from them every year - their skating, their passing, their defense...They've got a freshman goaltender, but up front then have something that a lot of teams don't have and that's a deep pool of talent in their forwards."
In other words, in addition to all of the dark clouds they've endured in the season's first month or so, the Badgers know a storm awaits in Minneapolis.