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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Top five can’t-miss games during the spring semester

Men's Hockey vs. Minnesota: Feb. 17

Anytime a Wisconsin sports team goes up against a Minnesota sports team it is a big rivalry game. But when the sport is hockey, and the venue is an outdoor rink at Soldier Field, it’s truly something special. Add in the fact that Minnesota is currently the No. 1 ranked team in the nation and you have all the makings of a classic.

The Badgers and Gophers will face off as the second game of a doubleheader in the Hockey City Classic, Feb. 17 in Chicago, following an opener between Miami University (Ohio) and Notre Dame. The two teams will play the first game of their weekend series the night before in Madison before making the 152-mile trip to Chicago the following day.

It will be the first outdoor game for the Badgers since hosting the Michigan Wolverines back in December 2010 in the Camp Randall Hockey Classic, in which Wisconsin earned a 3-2 victory.

Wisconsin and Minnesota already played one series this season back in mid-November. Sophomore goaltender Landon Peterson stopped 41 shots in game one, as the two teams skated to a 2-2 tie. The Gophers would get the better of UW in game two though, as junior forward Nick Bjugstad recorded a goal and an assist for Minnesota as they wrapped up a 3-1 victory in the Twin Cities.

Despite their failure to pick up a win in their first series this season, the Badgers have had success against Minnesota in recent years, as they split or won their five previous series before this year.

The contest represents the last regular season matchup between the two WCHA foes before they both make the move to the Big Ten conference next season.

—Matt Masterson

Men's Basketball vs. Michigan: Feb. 9

Head coach John Beilein took over a Michigan program that had not been to the NCAA Tournament since 1998, and in just five seasons at the helm in Ann Arbor, Beilein has taken the Wolverines to the Big Dance three times.

This season Beilein has taken the U-of-M program to the next level. Led by sophomore guard Trey Burke, a midseason Wooden Award front-runner, the Wolverines are 17-1 on the season and ranked No. 2 in the country.

Although it has already notched conference road victories over Northwestern and Minnesota, Michigan has yet to beat Bo Ryan’s Badgers in Madison. But the Wolverines dominated last year’s matchup in Ann Arbor and have proven themselves a tough matchup for any team to handle this season.

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The key for a Wisconsin upset will be neutralizing Michigan’s high-scoring backcourt. The combination of Burke and junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. is averaging 34.4 points per game. The Wolverines shoot 51 percent from the field and 41 percent from beyond the three-point arc, each a full 10 percentage points higher than their opposition.

While Michigan has easily the most athletic and perhaps most talented team in the country, it is fundamentally undersized. Starting forwards Glenn Robinson III (freshman) and Jordan Morgan (redshirt junior) are 6 feet 6 inches and 6 feet 8 inches, respectively, and while 6-foot-10-inch freshman forward Mitch McGary has logged significant minutes, Michigan has generally found itself at a size disadvantage facing major conference competition.

Although seniors Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz both clock in at a relatively benign 6 feet 6 inches, the presence of 6-foot-10-inch senior center Jared Berggren will give UW an advantage on the interior. In addition to having two inches over Morgan, Berggren’s ability to play out on the perimeter could force Morgan out of his comfort zone and may enable the Badgers to take the Wolverines out of rhythm on the defensive end.

By involving Berggren offensively and by getting out to a fast start to keep the Kohl Center crowd involved, Wisconsin can put together the perfect recipe for yet another conference upset.

—Max Sternberg

Women's Hockey vs. Minnesota: Jan. 25-27

In what will be the most important series played to date during the inaugural season at LaBahn Arena, the Wisconsin women’s hockey team (11-7-2-2 WCHA, 15-7-2 overall) will run up against a buzz saw in border rival Minnesota (18-0-0, 24-0-0) this weekend. As the top two teams this season in the WCHA, this matchup figures to serve as a preview for the conference and possibly national title game. 

Regarded as one of the best teams in women’s collegiate hockey history, the Gophers not only roll into Madison with a perfect record, but they have also made it look easy. Leading the WCHA in every major statistical category, Minnesota features a bevy of talent and depth on the ice. The biggest difference to Minnesota’s fortunes this season has been the emergence of freshman forward Hannah Brandt. The tandem of Brandt and junior forward Amanda Kessel have combined for 94 points, which is 43 points ahead of the next closest pair in the conference. 

No slouches themselves, the Badgers will counter with senior forward Brianna Decker, who enters the series No. 5 in the WCHA with 25 points. The two-time All-American will be complemented up front by sophomore forward Karley Sylvester, coming into her own this season as a viable threat for Wisconsin on offense.   

During their previous series, the Badgers held Minnesota to its closest margin of victory this season during a 2-0 defeat. Dec. 2 Wisconsin also held the Gophers to their fewest goals in a weekend series (six). The only goal from Wisconsin on the weekend came from Decker in the third period of a series-opening 4-1 loss. 

Although the weekend series in Madison will most likely not be last time the two squads meet this season, this series serves as a critical test in the Badgers’ young season.

Time is running out on head coach Mark Johnson to figure out how to slow down the Minnesota juggernaut, and a positive showing this weekend by Wisconsin could lead to success in the playoffs. 

Games will be played Friday and Sunday, with puck scheduled to drop at 2 p.m. in both contests.

—Peter Geppert

Men's Basketball vs. Minnesota: Jan. 26

Any “Border Battle” rivalry game between Wisconsin and Minnesota will garner media hype, regardless of whether the teams are competitive (ahem, Gopher football). This year’s slate of men’s basketball Border Battle games, however, should be as competitive and meaningful as they have been over the last five years.

Both teams are Big Ten title contenders in the nation’s top league, making the rivalry that much more intense this time around. The Badgers currently hold a one-game edge on Minnesota in the Big Ten standings. However, conference play isn’t even halfway done, and the two will square off twice in a three-week span this winter. For Wisconsin, the more important of the two games is the Gophers’ trip to the Kohl Center Jan. 26.

In a year where the conference is perhaps more talented, top to bottom, than it’s ever been, teams must take care of business at home if they want to compete for a Big Ten title.

Road games technically mean just as much, but it’s difficult for any team to compete in a league without first defending its home court.

A win for the Badgers Jan. 26 would make the Feb. 14 showdown a less daunting task. In essence, Wisconsin would be playing with house money at Williams Arena if it came in with a victory over the Gophers already under its belt. On the other hand, a Wisconsin home loss would make the second meeting between these two teams that much more crucial for the Badgers.

The No. 12 Gophers won 15 of their first 16 contests this season. Minnesota is currently in a bit of a slump, however, having lost its last two games to then-No. 5 Indiana and then-No. 5 Michigan.

The Gophers will travel to Northwestern Wednesday in an effort to halt their slide before they face the Badgers, while UW will host No. 13 Michigan State Tuesday looking to avoid a two-game slump of their own.

—Vince Huth

Men's Hockey vs. St. Cloud State: March 9

The Wisconsin men’s hockey team has not beaten WCHA conference foe St. Cloud State since March 2010, but if the Badgers plan on making noise in the WCHA tournament, they will need to finish off their year strong in their final game of the regular season against the Huskies March 9.

Since its last win against St. Cloud, UW has gone just 0-5-1 against the Huskies thanks to its recent 11-game unbeaten streak, Wisconsin has jumped into back into the race in the WCHA, with 17 conference points. St. Cloud has a WCHA-best 11 conference wins this season and is tied with Minnesota for the overall points lead with 22.

Huskies redshirt senior Drew LeBlanc has been on fire this season, racking up seven goals and 27 assists for 34 points, good for second-most in the country. Goaltending will be key for the Badgers in this series, and that has arguably been their greatest strength of late.

The sophomore duo of Joel Rumpel and Landon Peterson has been stellar recently.

The Badgers have not allowed more than three goals in a game since their 4-2 loss against Minnesota State Nov. 24. Wisconsin allows just 2.05 goals per game this season, the No. 6 average in the country.

Rumpel and Peterson have .933 and .932 save percentages, respectively, which are tied for No. 10 and No. 12 overall in the nation. Rumpel’s three shutouts this season are also tied for the fifth most by any goaltender this season.

This matchup will also feature a unique venue, as the Badgers and Huskies will play at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Alliant Energy Center instead of Wisconsin’s normal home ice at the Kohl Center.

—Matt Masterson

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