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Gopher Hockey Notebook: Changes abound as Minnesota welcomes Wisconsin to town

Minnesota on playing Wisconsin this weekend for Hockey Day Minnesota, addressing its struggling defense, in defense of Adam Wilcox, possible line changes & much, much more.

Gopher defensemen Mike Reilly (5) and Ryan Collins (6)
Gopher defensemen Mike Reilly (5) and Ryan Collins (6)
Matt Christians

With Wisconsin (2-12-2, 0-2-0-0 Big Ten) on the schedule two of the next three weeks, the focus is not as much on the rivalry between the two border Big Ten schools. Don't get me wrong. It's still there. Every person asked Wednesday spoke about the Minnesota-Wisconsin games being meaningful, including Seth Ambroz, whose success against the Badgers is more than impressive.

The senior has 7 goals in 11 games versus Wisconsin. None were bigger than his game-winning goal at Mariucci Arena last year. Ambroz was left open with 26 seconds remaining following a turnover and lit the lamp for his second straight multi-goal game on the weekend.

"Obviously I've been fortunate enough to have some success against Wisconsin," said Ambroz, whose goal against Michigan on Saturday snapped a 15 game goalless streak and helping to give him some confidence. "I get excited to play Wisconsin as everyone does. Like I said, I've been lucky enough to have the puck to go in against these guys. Hopefully it continues to stay that way."

It's safe to say that for the Gophers playing Wisconsin is up there - every player mentioned it being right at or below North Dakota (Minnesota doesn't meet UND in the regular season until 2016) in terms of importance.

In typical Minnesotan fashion, Brady Skjei responded with, "I don't like them much, no."

However, this is the one year for about a decade span in Dinkytown where a Wisconsinite is not wearing maroon and gold. Ex-captain Nate Condon (Wassau, WI) graduated last year and Tommy Novak (River Falls, WI) isn't expected to arrive on campus until September. (Tarek Baker, who hails from Verona, WI - outside Madison - is also in the Gopher pipeline for presumably 2016.)

So instead of having the "player from Wisconsin talks about being from Wisconsin" interview, this week is more about Minnesota as a team than its opponent. Honestly with how the last couple weeks that's a good thing.

Brodzinski practicing after leaving game early

Minnesota head coach Don Lucia stated that the team is healthy other than sophomore defenseman Michael Brodzinski. His status for the weekend is to be determined.

"Brodzinski is going to practice (Wednesday). He hasn't practiced this week because he went down early in the game on Saturday," said Lucia. " We'll see where he's at tomorrow. I know he made a lot of progress."

Brodzinski was injured by a hit midway through the first period and didn't return. He did practice Wednesday despite the injury, which Lucia "specified" as being "body between his head and his toes." If there's still body work to be done in a place other than his hair and he's not ready to go than Jack Glover and Steve Johnson have better opportunities to get in against the Badgers.

Everyone else being healthy is good news for Ryan Collins, who was a gametime decision to not play on Saturday.

Hudson Fasching was given the day off Monday in order to get some rest. The sophomore forward didn't get any time off over Winter Break. He missed the holidays after playing for Team USA in the World Junior Championships and came straight back from being eliminated to suit up for the Gophers in the Marriuci Classic a day later.

Improving at even strength by possibly changing lines...or not

One positive in Saturday's loss was that Ambroz scored at even strength and linemate Travis Boyd had two more.

"That's what you hope gets (Ambroz) going. Throw one in and goes off a guy for only his second of the year. Sometimes that's what you need to jumpstart," Lucia said. "Over the years Seth has scored quite a few goals against Wisconsin so hopefully that's going to continue."

Minnesota leads the nation in power play percentage. Getting more even strength goals is something the head coach has emphasized at times this year.Although there has been some progress, that isn't stopping Lucia from trying to find chemistry and more scoring depth at even strength.

This week in practice has seen some new line combinations.

"We kind of blew up our lines this week and moved guys around. Whether they stay like that for Friday night I don't know," he said. "Maybe a little bit of changing things up in practice will be fresh and good for some of the guys."

If the new lines stand against Wisconsin, it's safe to say that no one is safe. All four forward lines would be affected. The Gophers have had some longtime pairings in its top-nine, but what Lucia would like is to get some players contributing that have struggled.

He didn't single anyone out yet there are players on the top 3 lines which could do more five-on-five. For example, last weekend's line of Sam Warning, Justin Kloos and Taylor Cammarata features three players that have not scored an even strength goal since November 28th against Boston College.

In other words, some more Ambrozes (or another Connor Reilly, who leads the team with 10 goals and is on an 8 game point streak).

"Our center play has been pretty good," Lucia added. "The wingers, we need some more scoring depth and I think if you look at what's being done we've had good teams that have had scoring depth. We have to get back to getting some guys to have a really good second half of the year this year from an offensive standpoint, but again, without giving anything up on the defensive end."

On the blue line Minnesota is trying to finalize the order it has for the rest of the season with Brady Skjei healthy.

"We've been moving guys around and I think at some point we have to settle on who our top six defenseman are and make a go of it," said Lucia.

Lessons from being swept by Michigan

Minnesota (10-7-1, 1-2-1-0 Big Ten) has some baggage coming off of being swept at Michigan and handing off the reins as the Big Ten leader. While the two games were tough on the Gophers for separate reasons, what's even more difficult is that the losses have pushed the team on the outside of the Pairwise Rankings - and by virtue, the NCAA Tournament. (I'll have more on this and Wisconsin for Friday.)

There are things which need to be changed and cleaned up along with the fact the team would like to take some lessons.

"You gotta learn from your mistakes and learn from what your team has been doing wrong," said Skjei, who was happy to return last weekend to the lineup following injuries. "But no, that weekend is behind us and we're all focused for Wisconsin this weekend. It's obviously a huge weekend, a huge rivalry that should be a lot of fun."

Lucia mentioned that the team is only a game off its pace a year ago on the road against Michigan and Michigan State. Turn an OT loss to the Wolverines into a win and things would be the same. With its first Big Ten series at home (compared with only 6 conference road games remaining) against a Badgers team that is

Or maybe not. A single win instead of a loss doesn't stop the fact the Gophers are 3-6-1 since sweeping Notre Dame in early November. There is no panic or change to preseason expectations, however,

"We're not that far away, but obviously we're not playing to the level that we need to play at," Lucia said. "To me the big thing is that we need to be better defensively than what we have been. You can't keep giving up three or more goals on a nightly basis and expect to win."

Focusing on defense rather than cheating to create offense is something the Gophers are striving for against the Badgers.

"That's on all of us to do a better job whether it's managing the puck better, whether it's backchecking and getting the stick up, whether it's being disciplined in our assignments. Those are things we have to do a better job of because we're not going to win games giving up four goals and seven goals that's for sure," he added.

Wilcox no worry

Freshman goalie Nick Lehr made his collegiate debut in a regular season game (Lehr did play 80 minutes in two exhibitions) when he replaced Adam Wilcox midway through the second period on Saturday. The Roseville native made 16 saves on 18 shots against Michigan.

"That was a tough spot. I'm not sure there's a more difficult place to play than Yost Arena," Lucia said. "And for (Lehr) to get his first college experience in that rink I think gave us a comfort that if he can go in there and play well - he gave up the two goals in over half a game, but one went off Ben Marshall's stick and the other, Larkin, who is a first round pick, had a great shot on that. There's no shame in how he played on Saturday night and he should build off that."

That doesn't mean Wilcox, who has already given up 3 or more goals as many times this season as he did during his Mike Richter Award-nominated sophomore year, is anywhere near out of favor, though. Minnesota's head coach chalked up the junior's poor game to being one of those days, saying he wants Adam in his fox hole when in battle.

"The reality is - and that's what I told Adam after the game on Saturday - you're a position player. You're a starting pitcher and get knocked out early. The next night you can throw a no-hitter," he said. "That's just the way it goes when you're in a position - a quarterback, a starting pitcher, a goaltender - there's a little more focus on a good or a bad game.

"Adam's been a model of consistency since he's been here. He's been our starting goalie for two and a half years. in that time there's been maybe two games that he's been off."

Saturday's 7-5 loss was only the second time Wilcox had been pulled in 95 career games. The other was a 6-2 loss to Minnesota-Duluth in November 2013.

For his part, Skjei agreed with his head coach and took responsibility for the defense helping out its goalie more.

"We need to stop turning over the puck. We turned it over way too much last weekend," said Skjei. "We left Adam out to dry a few times and we need to be much more stronger defensively and can't get caught up in the play as much."

Wilcox has a .910 save percentage this season. In his career the South St. Paul native has a .924 save percentage and is second on the Gophers all-time in shutouts with 10.

Game Times & Hockey Day Minnesota note

This weekend has a strange schedule. Friday night's game begins at 8:10 p.m. CT thanks to BTN covering the game between the only two B1G Hockey central time zone schools. Dan Kelly, Ben Clymer and Fred Pletsch have the call.

Saturday's game is part of Hockey Day Minnesota and because of that begins at 5:00 p.m. CT. Fox Sports North will have coverage. Doug McLeod and Ben Clymer will be calling that game.

1500 ESPN has both games in the Twin Cities with the great Wally Shaver and Frank Mazzocco on the radio. In Madison, the games can be heard on WIBA AM 1310. Brian Posick and Paul Capobianco will call the action there.

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Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter --