The University of Minnesota Gopher Hockey Team will play its final regular season Big Ten series of the year this weekend hosting Penn State. It will be an eventful weekend for many reasons, most notably the Gophers will say goodbye to six seniors who have had one of the best four year stretches in Gopher history. But even thought it doesn't feel like it, the Gophers still have a good chance to clinch their fourth consecutive league regular season title this weekend with a sweep of the Nittany Lions...and some help in Michigan.
Saturday night the Gophers will honor six players who will graduate after this season. They have been a part of one of the most successful classes that Gopher Hockey has brought in, accounting for three-straight regular-season conference titles which is a program record and two trips to the NCAA Frozen Four. The Gophers have a record of 101-42-15 so far during their tenure and are a remarkable 60-13-7 at Mariucci Arena. If the Gophers can do what they need to do to win a second-straight Big Ten title this weekend, this senior class would be the only group to win regular-season titles in all four years of competition at Minnesota.
The six Gopher seniors who will be playing their last games on the Mariucci ice this weekend are:
D #10 Ben Marshall-- Marshall has taken some ribbing from Gopher fans over his four years at the U, but has turned out to be a solid offensive-minded defenseman for the Gophers. Marshall has been able to quarterback the power-play, and has turned into a solid mentor for the rest of the young Gopher D-corps.
F #26 Christian Isackson - Isackson is another player who had taken his share of criticism from Gopher fans over his four years. He came in as a playmaker from St. Thomas Academy and has trouble realizing that's not the role he needed to play with the Gophers. However this year, though, Isackson has been a solid contributor on a fourth line that has provided tremendous energy at times, focusing on making more simple plays and executing them well.
F #11 Sam Warning - Warning has definitely been a lightning rod in his time as a Gopher. Warning has the speed and skill to absolutely dominate shifts, but often times (especially early in his career) he faded into the background of games. The hot-streak Warning would be something that would be nice to see over the next few weeks.
F #17 Seth Ambroz - Ambroz is a guy who really grew into his role as a player and a leader on the team. He came in with probably too high expectations after being selected as a high NHL draft pick, but as a Junior and a Senior, He has grown into his role on this team. Ambroz is never a player one could accuse of taking off a shift and this is something that Gopher fans have grown to love about him. Oh..yeah he KILLS Wisconsin too. Which, you know...is a positive as well.
F #22 Travis Boyd - Travis Boyd is a player who has definitely grown into a successful role on this team. Boyd has taken over the old Nick Bjugstad position on the wing on the power-play and has has some success with the one-timer passes that he has seen. He is the one player who you can truly say has made the most of his senior season, and we can only hope that he does not want his college hockey dream to end next weekend.
F #7 Kyle Rau - Rau will go down as one of the most positively respected Gophers in a very long time. He knows how to get under an opponents skin, and has been rewarded with several power-play goals because of it. Rau will end up in the Top 30 all-time for scorers who have worn the M, and has had the knack for scoring some critical goals at critical times. No-one will be able to forget the infamous dice roll celebration after his GWG over North Dakota at Mariucci his sophomore season. He is one that will definitely be missed next fall.
As was said above, this Gopher senior class has the opportunity to do something that no other Gopher class ever has. The Gophers are currently in a tie with Michigan for second place in the Big Ten, one point behind Michigan State. While the Gophers host Penn State, the two Michigan teams will be paying a home and home series this weekend. If the Michigan teams split this weekend, the Gophers would need a win and a shootout-loss to tie the Spartans for the crown, and could win it outright with five or more points. It would give the Gophers the first two Big Ten Regular Season Championships, and four consecutive regular season championships including the last two years in the WCHA. That's damn impressive.
Even if the Gophers can't win the Big Ten title, this weekend is crucial for their at large NCAA hopes. As shown below in a graph produced by Jim Dahl at the great College Hockey Ranked Blog. If the Gophers can win at least one game this weekend, they will still have a chance to sit on the NCAA Tournament bubble. The Gophers would most likely need to win at least one and maybe two games next week in the Big Ten Tournament to feel safer, but its still possible. If the Gophers get swept this weekend, its going to be virtually impossible to make the NCAA Field as an at-large.
The Gophers can send their six seniors out with another Big Ten Championship this weekend. That is the most important thing to remember. The Gophers are most likely two wins away from hanging another banner at Mariucci next fall. They have the talent, but do they have the drive. Lets hope the six Gophers (and probably at least 2-3 more underclassmen) who will be playing their last two games on the Mariucci ice can dig deep and hang at least one more banner as a team.
WHO, WHERE, WHEN, and HOW to WATCH
Where: Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis, Minnesota
When: 7:05 PM both Friday and Saturday
TV: GETTV (Channel 23-2 on antenna in Twin Cities) MyTV (KIMT) in SE Minnesota on Friday
FSN + on Saturday
Radio: 1500 ESPN