MINNEAPOLIS — After spending more than half of his 13 seasons in the NHL playing on a Los Angeles Kings team that featured an attention-grabbing forward named Wayne Gretzky, Wisconsin men’s hockey coach Tony Granato knows a bit about managing what is perceived to be a one-man team.
Cole Caufield, the Badgers’ second-year star who won the Big Ten scoring title as a rookie (on a Wisconsin team that took its on-ice lumps, finishing last in the seven-team conference) is up to his old tricks. He leads the conference in every offensive category (14 goals, 14 assists, 28 points, 6 power-play goals, 13 power-play points) coming into this weekend’s Friday-Saturday series versus the Minnesota Gophers in Minneapolis. But this season, the Badgers are finding team success to go along with individual heroics.
Wisconsin is in second place in what has realistically become a three-team race for the Big Ten crown. The Badgers are five points back of the first-place Gophers. Each game is worth three points, meaning a Badgers sweep inside 3M Arena at Mariucci would vault them into the top spot.
To prevent that from happening, the Gophers admit that they need to account for Caufield every time the Montreal Canadiens first-round draft pick steps on the ice. But Granato knows from experience that when you pay all of your attention to Gretzky, it opens up opportunities for folks like Luc Robitaille and Jari Kurri — both of whom were high-scorers in the Kings’ run to the 1993 Stanley Cup Final.
“When I look at Minnesota’s roster and look at their lines, they’ve got depth as well. A lot of elite teams have multiple ways of beating you,” Granato said on Monday, in a Zoom call with the media. “On our team, I think everyone does focus on Cole...he’s the most visible because who he is and what he’s done and also the kind of year he’s having.
"What it does with the way our lineup is set up with Dylan Holloway on the second line with (Roman) Ahcan and Brock Caufield, (Cole’s) brother, those guys are quietly having really, really good years. The balance we have on our team does give us the ability, if Cole is being checked hard, there are some things we can do to counter that.”
Cole Caufield was added to the “vote for Hobey” list a day later than most candidates, but as of Thursday at noon was the fan vote leader with 16 percent of the ballots cast. Gophers goalie Jack LaFontaine, who will almost certainly get to see Caufield up close this weekend, was second with 11 percent.
The Gophers don’t have one or two lines that an opponent can shut down and expect success. Coach Bob Motzko has rolled four lines all season, and has a team that is leading the nation offensively, with 30 goals scored in the past four games.
Minnesota got two short-handed goals last weekend in a sweep at Ohio State, which is rare on two levels: Short-handed goals don’t happen often, and the Gophers aren’t sending many people to the penalty box this season. They are averaging fewer than three penalties per game, the fewest in the Big Ten. Motzko has a few theories on why that is happening, including the dramatically different atmosphere inside rinks with so few fans allowed.
“I think it’s definitely affecting officials. Usually the crowds make calls, and they’re letting everything go right now,” Motzko said, adding later that his team is also playing relatively clean hockey. “We’ve got a disciplined group. I’ve been very happy with that.
"I do think that one of the things I’ve noticed...without the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the crowd that usually draw an official in and gets them thinking they made a mistake, I think there’s a lot of non-calls right now. And I’m not asking for more calls. I like the way things are going right now.”
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« These teams played a month ago in Madison, Wis., with the Badgers winning the opener 3-1 (which was the Gophers’ first loss of the season) and Minnesota rebounding for a 5-3 win in the rematch. The Border Battle rivalry began nearly a century ago, with the Gophers beating the Badgers four times in 1922. Minnesota leads the all-time series 174-97-25.
« The Friday and Saturday evening games both start at 7 p.m. The radio broadcast with Wally Shaver and Frank Mazzocco is on 1130 AM/103.5 FM and video is also streamed on the Fox Sports app. Both games will be televised by FSN PLUS, with Anthony LaPanta and former Gopher Ben Clymer on the Friday night call, and Charlie Beattie joining Clymer for the Saturday game.