MADISON, Wis. — In this college hockey season like no other, with the on-going pandemic touching every facet of life on and off the rink, Wisconsin Badgers coach Tony Granato understands the pain of separation.
He had a full roster in the middle of November, when the Badgers opened the season with a sweep at Notre Dame. Since then, a combination of injuries, positive COVID-19 tests and key players leaving town to play for their respective countries has forced Granato and his staff to piece together what they can to put a team on the ice. They closed Phase 1 of the schedule with a split at Ohio State despite having just eight forwards available.
But with the nation’s top-ranked Minnesota Gophers heading to LaBahn Arena — with few fans allowed at games, the Badgers are playing in the normal home of Wisconsin women’s hockey this season — this weekend, the team’s full roster has been reunited.
“It seemed like every time we got going a little bit, we lost a player or two for different reasons. Our guys have worked hard as a group to battle through it, and now we’re all here,” Granato said. “It doesn’t let us off the hook from a standpoint that just because everybody’s here now, it’s all good. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.”
At 5-5-0 overall and 5-3-0 in the Big Ten, the Badgers sit in second place behind the 8-0-0 Gophers, who are 10-0-0 overall after a non-conference sweep of Arizona State on Sunday and Monday. The biggest re-additions to the Wisconsin lineup are forwards Cole Caufield and Dylan Holloway, who returned late Wednesday night to Madison from the World Junior Championships in Edmonton, where Caufield won gold for Team USA and Holloway settled for silver with Team Canada.
“Those guys are unbelievably skilled and you saw that in World Juniors, how well both of them played,” said Gophers defenseman Ben Brinkman. “Besides those guys, they have a ton of other skilled guys. You can’t let them get going and give them time and space. You’ve got to close in on them early, otherwise they’re going to be skating around your zone, making you look stupid.”
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The Gophers will also have a full roster for the first time in a month, as they have played their past four games (and won all of them) without the trio of defensemen that was mining gold in Alberta. And they may have made some important strides as a team in last weekend’s two wins over Arizona State, by finding new ways to get victories.
Prior to the Sun Devils visiting for the start of Phase 2, the Gophers had not trailed nor had they surrendered a power-play goal, and Jack LaFontaine had played every minute in goal. They trailed in both of the games versus Arizona State and rallied to win both, despite surrendering power-play goals both nights. They also showed some crease-based diversity, with Jared Moe starting in goal on Monday, earning his first win of the season with 20 saves.
Moe also got to be on ESPN SportsCenter, after surrendering a lacrosse-style goal by Sun Devils star Johnny Walker. It was the second time, after Michigan’s Mike Legg did it in a 1996 NCAA playoff game, that such a goal has been scored versus the Gophers.
“A couple of the boys sent (Moe the video). I think it was number one on the SportsCenter top 10,” Gophers forward Bryce Brodzinski said. “It’s kind of unfortunate that it’s happened to the Gophers twice. We’re trying to get out of that threshold of having it happen to us. Maybe this year we’ll kind of stick it back to somebody.”
Having now trailed in the first and second periods of games, and having rallied to win both, the Gophers are confident in their abilities. They also know that greater on-ice challenges are coming, with an arch-rival looming, and the fight for standings point intensifying.
“We are going to get punched in the nose one of these nights and then we’re going to find out how we respond after what we’ve done,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. “We got punched in the nose (Monday) night and those are lessons we have to have by playoff time, and we’re going to get them. The speed limit in January and February really starts ramping up, and we’re looking forward to it.”
The games at Wisconsin are at 4 p.m. CT on Saturday and Sunday. Fox Sports North is televising the two games with Brian Posick and Bill Brophy calling the action and Piper Shaw doing sideline reporting. The broadcast is also available on BTN+ and on the Fox Sports Go app. Wally Shaver and Frank Mazzocco will handle the radio broadcast on 1130 AM/103.5 FM and streamed on iHeartRadio.