Wisconsin hockey isn't a stranger when it comes to playing outdoor hockey games, but this year there's no denying something will be different when the Badgers tangle with their Border Battle Rivals outdoors at Soldier Field in Chicago on Sunday. Not only is it a game against a bitter rival in the middle of the season, but it's also a game that's going to be hugely important for each team in the WCHA standings.
Now, that's something Wisconsin isn't used to when it comes to playing outdoor hockey.
"I guess the main point is there are a lot of dynamics wrapped up into this weekend," said UW head coach Mike Eaves. "Kind of the exciting part about it is… is the fact that this weekend will serve to be a real emotional boost, I think, here in the dog days of the second half of the WCHA and the fact that we play a day off and then do something totally out of the Norm of playing outside in front of 50,000-plus people, I think, is a really good thing. I think both teams will feed off of that, and it will be a really great experience."
Eaves perhaps hit on one of the most important parts of what this game can do – win, lose, or draw – and that's that this experience can serve as a boost to the moral of the program. It also may have contributed to the results of last weekend, with Wisconsin not playing up to it's potential to say the least.
"I think the fact that it's the ghost in our barn is something that's on our kids' mind," said Eaves in regards to last weekend's results. "I hate to say this, but that might have been a factor on Saturday night, that your kids get looking past. I mean, everybody's talking about the outdoor game."
So, does that mean that Wisconsin will take a look too far into the future in this series, since they play on Friday night against the Gophers at the Kohl Center. Eaves really doesn't see that as an issue.
"I talked to some of the kids this morning trying to figure out where they were at Saturday to try to figure things out," Eaves said. "So it could have been that. But I think definitely our minds are going to be there on Friday night. No problem there."
But, what about actually playing an outdoor game of this magnitude? At least the coaching staff (especially Eaves) has experience in this atmosphere and the roster has Derek Lee, Ryan Little, Keegan Meuer, and captain John Ramage who were all freshman on the team that played in the 2010 Camp Randall Hockey Classic.
Minnesota on the other hand has never, as a collegiate team, played an outdoor hockey game and that could be to Wisconsin's advantage.
"I mean, the fact that I don't know what Minnesota knows about playing outsid. What kind of underwear are they going to wear?" said Eaves. "Are they going to wear hats or tukes or whatever they're going to wear underneath their equipment, that becomes a big factor."
Of course most on the roster have probably played outdoors, after all, how many of us have played hockey with our friends at a local park in our youth? It's even more commonplace in a state like Minnesota, so perhaps that advantage only exists in knowing what to do from an equipment standpoint.
However, that's not what really is important to Eaves and Co. heading into this weekend. That's because they've got their own house to take care of and that means finding out what the heck is going on with the Badgers power play. It's a unit that is in danger of becoming the single worst in school history. A lot of that falls on the shoulders of the guys that are supposed to be the leaders of the unit – Mark Zengerle and Tyler Barnes.
So, does Eaves have an answer? Not really, but he does know that he needs to get to the bottom of this and figure out where Zengerle and Barnes are coming from – emotionally and physically – and figure out the best way to get them out of their funk from there.
"…So just trying to find out and help them grow and figure out where they want to be in the future, what they're doing now," Eaves stated. "Are they worrying about things that are out of their control? And once you get into a little bit of a funk like Barnesy and Zengs are, you have to push and remind them that they are good players and what they need to do to get back to that form that they know they have inside of them."
No matter what this series has implications on many levels for the Badgers, both in the WCHA and for their NCAA tournament hopes. Pull out a win at least once this weekend and their hopes for an NCAA birth expand and they also solidify their hold on a home series for the WCHA playoffs in the future.