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Badgers open up B1G Hockey play with Border Battle

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A young No. 20 Wisconsin Badgers men’s hockey program will get a big test as it opens Big Ten hockey play. That’s because the Badgers will welcome the No. 16 Minnesota Gophers to town for a two-game series in the intense Border Battle rivalry.

It’s certainly a marquee way to open up conference play and a series that see’s these two teams trying to gain a foothold on their seasons. 

This series will have a different feeling as long-time Gophers head coach Don Lucia is not behind the bench for the visitors anymore. His replacement, Bob Motzko, isn’t an unfamiliar name though as he is a former Gopher assistant and long-time head coach at Minnesota-Duluth. 

Can he step up and lead a young Gophers team to a big road upset in his first time as the leader on the bench or will the Badgers experience advantage finally give them a home sweep in this series under Tony Granato?

Let’s break down how this series sets up. 

Wisconsin Badgers (No. 20)

Record: 4-4-0 (0-0-0-0 B1G)
Head Coach: Tony Granato, 3rd season (38-38-5)
Notable: Wisconsin’s coaching staff has embraced the youth movement in a big way as of late. Last Saturday at North Dakota, the Badgers skated all nine of their freshmen for the first time this season. That included the collegiate debut of rookie defenseman Jesper Peltonen. The nine freshmen were the most for UW in a game since March 14, 2015, when the Badgers had nine rookies in the lineup in a game against Ohio State.

Stat Leaders:

Points: Wyatt Kalynuk, 9 (4 goals, 5 assists)
Goals: Sean Dhooghe (5)
Assists: 4 tied w/ 6 
GAA: Daniel Lebedeff (2.02)
Save Pct.: Daniel Lebedeff (.922)

Minnesota Gophers (No. 16) 

Record: 1-3-1 (0-0-0-0 B1G)
Head Coach: Bob Motzko — 1st year at Minnesota, 13th overall (277-195-50) 
Notable: The Gophers have a bad record and are still ranked? When the games with Wisconsin are games 6 and 7 against ranked opponents on the season you begin to see why the Gophers remained ranked. 

Stat Leaders:

Points: Clayton Phillips, 5 (0 goals, 5 assists)
Goals: 4 tied w/ 2
Assists: Phillips (5)
GAA: Eric Schierhorn (2.64)
Save Pct.: Mat Robson (.916)

Key to the Matchup: Wisconsin’s defense

Early on this season it has been a work in progress for the Badgers defense. But, it feels like things are coming together after last weekend’s performance against North Dakota. That’s especially the case in the finale, where the Badgers lost 3-2 in overtime after giving up 5 goals to ND on Friday night. 

UW had a season high 25 blocks in the loss. Those 25 blocks were also the most in 16 contests for the Badgers dating back to last January. 

It also appears that freshman goaltender Daniel Lebedef is coming in to his own quickly. He started Saturday’s game and saved 32 of 35 shots on the night. That came after experienced starter Jack Berry gave up 4 goals in taking the loss in the previous game. Lebedef came in relief and stopped 7 of 8 shots in just over 27 minutes of ice time. 

Combine a defense willing to go all-out and a young goaltender that is pretty hot and you have something to work with. No longer do you need the offense to constantly be leaned on, and that’s very helpful to a group that has been under extreme stress early on in the season. 

Prediction:

Friday: Minnesota 4-3
Saturday: Wisconsin 4-3

Both teams have played quality competition leading up to the start of their Big Ten seasons, so at least we have a fair comparison to work off of. That said, I don’t trust Wisconsin at home against Minnesota very much. 

Yes, it’s a new era for the Gopher hockey program, but Motzko is more than familiar with the rivalry and with the Badgers program overall having posted up as the head coach at Minnesota-Duluth for more than a decade. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see a Badgers sweep here, but something tells me the defensive inconsistency due to youth may be at play early on in the first matchup and it’ll cost the Badgers overall on Friday night. 

Minnesota’s defense is allowing an average of 3.0 goals per game, while the Badgers come in giving up 3.2 goals per game on their end. That portends a ton of lamps being lit in this series. 

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Badgers hockey

Pair of Badgers picked in 1st round of NHL Draft

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The Wisconsin Badgers men’s hockey program has struggled to get back to consistently high-level hockey. But, if the NHL scouts are right, UW is about to get two game-changing players in the mix.

That’s because two incoming freshmen were selected in the first round for just the third time in program history.

The first selection was Alex Turcotte by the Los Angeles Kings at No. 5 overall.

Many projected the Badgers to have two top 10 picks, but Cole Caufield had to wait a bit longer than expected and was picked No. 15 overall by the Montreal Canadiens.

The only other times that the Badgers had two or more picks in the first round of the NHL draft were in 2016 when Luke Kunin and Trent Frederic were picked and in 2007 when three players had their named called in the first round — Kyle Turris, Ryan McDonagh and Brendan Smith.

Turcotte’s selection at No. 5 is also the third-highest pick for a Badger, trailing only Danny Heatley at No. 2 to the Atlanta Thrashers in 2000 and Turris’ pick at No. 3 by the Phoenix Coyotes in 2007.

If you’re going by production at the junior level, these two players may have a massive impact on UW hockey this season. Caufield ripped up the record book for the US National Development U-18 program, besting the single-season goal record (55 by Auston Matthews) with 72 goals. He also put up 126 goals in his overall career with the program, besting Phil Kessel’s 104 markers.

Turcotte wasn’t too shabby either, despite playing just 37 games due to injury this past season. He posted 27 goals and 62 points in those limited games.

The NHL draft will be completed on Saturday, so stay tuned for more Badgers names to be called.

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Badgers hockey releases 2019-20 schedule

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On Wednesday morning the Big Ten released its conference slate for hockey and with that the Wisconsin Badgers full schedule is now complete for the 2019-20 season.

The season begins on October 11 as UW travels out East for a split weekend series. Up first is a visit to Boston College, followed by a game at Merrimack on Oct. 12.

Wisconsin’s first home weekend is a rough one, as they will welcome two-time defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth for a two-game series.

Non-conference play continues the following weekend with Clarkson, who lost to Notre Dame in a first round matchup in last season’s NCAA tournament.

UW will only play two other non-conference series the rest of the way, with a trip to Omaha in early November and Arizona State visiting the Kohl Center in late February.

Big Ten play begins with a road series against Penn State in Nov. 1 and 2.

The first home Big Ten series will be against reigning Big Ten title holders Notre Dame (Nov. 15 & 16).

The Badgers won’t host bitter rival Minnesota until Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, but will visit the Gophers on Nov. 22 and 23.

Wisconsin won’t have an easy run to the end of the season either, with its final three Big Ten series coming up again Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State.

Both the Michigan and Ohio State series are on the road as well.

The season will end with the Big Ten tournament, which will take place over three straight weekends in March at the home of the higher seed throughout.

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Badgers hockey downed 6-3 by No. 8 Denver

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The second half of the Wisconsin Badgers hockey season got underway with old WCHA rival Denver coming to the Kohl Center. It was not a fun start, as four 3rd period goals lifted the visiting No. 8 ranked Pioneers to a 6-3 win.

Denver (11-4-2, 4-4-0 NCHC) scored three goals in less than 5:30 of the 3rd period to turn a tie game in to a 5-2 lead in its favor.

“I can’t be too critical tonight,” said head coach Tony Granato following the loss. “We haven’t played for four weeks and we played a top-five team.

“Give them credit, they made plays. They have some great players out there and have a lot of confidence in how they are playing. That’s a great team though. I can’t be too critical. We’ve played well all year. We’ve played hard all year.”

Wisconsin (8-8-3, 4-3-3-1 B1G) and Denver traded goals over the course of the first two periods, with Denver opening the scoring just 4:15 in to the game on a power play.

It would be the only scoring of the first period though.

Tyler Inamoto scored his first career goal at the 3:50 mark of the 2nd period to even things up at 1-1. It took over 10 more minutes for the next goal to come and it came to the Pioneers at the 15:31 mark of the same period for a 2-1 advantage.

Wisconsin would tie it back up at 2-2 thanks to a power play goal from Seamus Malone. It was just his third goal of the season for the Badgers and came with just over 40 seconds left in the 2nd period.

There was no momentum out of the intermission for Wisconsin though.

Denver lit the lamp for a 3-2 lead just 2:43 in to the 3rd period and little did the Badgers know the route was on from there.

The Pioneers next two goals came just 19 seconds apart within the 6th minute of the period for a 5-2 lead.

Will Johnson’s 6th goal of the season made it 5-3, but came at the 17:20 mark fo the final period and a bit too late to make a massive difference.

Denver added an empty-netter from Jake Durflinger at 19:21 to seal the deal at 6-3.

“Tonight there were just parts of the the game that they were just better than us at,” Granato said. “Let’s not look too much into it. Let’s see how we respond tomorrow. All year long Saturday nights have been a good response by us pretty much straight throughout the year and I expect that from us tomorrow.”

The Badgers and Pioneers will meet again tomorrow night, with puck drop scheduled for 7pm CT on Fox Sports Wisconsin Plus.

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UW hockey tied atop Big Ten standings heading in to winter break

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After a hot start to open the season, the Wisconsin Badgers hockey team seemed like it was cooling way down as conference play got under way. But, things have turned around a bit over the last three series for the Badgers. 

Following a weekend sweep of Big Ten bottom dwellers, Michigan State, the Badgers (8-7-3, 4-3-3-1 B1G) now sit tied with the Ohio State Buckeyes atop the Big Ten standings with 16 points each. 

UW ended its first two series of Big Ten conference play with a 1-3-0-0 overall record — splitting a home series with rival Minnesota and being swept by Ohio State. 

To say the team wasn’t looking like a contender in the conference was not too far a stretch at all. 

“We weren’t happy with the outcomes of the North Dakota and Ohio State weekends,” head coach Tony Granato said following the series sweep of MSU this weekend. “Not necessarily that we lost, but we just didn’t play well. We didn’t play the way we thought we were capable of playing. So we had this stretch coming up, going to Michigan and coming home to Penn State, two ranked teams, and then coming back to a scrappy team here today. We thought that if we’re going to make a push this season and get anything out of it, we’ve got to get going right now.”

The tides have turned since that loss on Nov. 17 to the Buckeyes, as Wisconsin hasn’t lost a regulation game since. UW earned points in a strange way over the course of the next three games — earning ties with Michigan twice and Penn State in that series opener. UW only got extra points in a shootout win over Michigan and lost in a 3-on-3 OT period in that series opener as well as a shootout in the Penn State series opener.

Wisconsin put on a clinic this weekend against the Spartans, winning 8-5 and 5-3 to sweep a series for the first time since the season-opening matchup with Boston College. 

It all adds up to a team who hasn’t lost in six straight contests and is on a three-game win streak as they head in to the winter break. 

“Playing six games in a row in our conference, playing the way we did and not losing in regulation says a lot about our goaltending, about the play of our defense and about the contributions of all four lines,” said Granato. “That’s been the most fun thing to see, is how each of the lines has found ways to contribute in lots of different ways.”

Can that momentum carry over in to the second half of the season? UW will get former WCHA rival Denver on Jan. 4 to start the second half before a return to Big Ten play.

That means there will be little time to ease back in to things and overcoming challenges seem to be UW’s specialty this year. But, considering how the last few seasons trended when things got tough, this team appears set to be different. 

Can it add up to a contender for its first Big Ten regular season title? That will be answered by UW’s ability to turn ties against top teams in to wins. 

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