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Minnesota Hockey: Loss To Michigan Might Doom Gophers NCAA At-Large Chances

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The Gophers really needed a sweep this weekend to put themselves in decent shape for an NCAA at-large bid and Thursday's loss did them no favors.

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What happened last night anyway?

Minnesota lost to Michigan 6-2. Yes, thanks to the Big Ten there was a Thursday night hockey game. For details, I turn to Nate Wells (who was covering the game for the PiPress):

Early mental errors and a stellar performance by Michigan junior Alex Kile cost the Gophers their hold on first place in the Big Ten. The Wolverines turned a 2-0 third-period lead into a 6-2 victory Thursday night that emptied Mariucci Arena well before the final whistle blew.

Before anyone gets all angst filled, how about some more details from Nate?

Goaltender Steve Racine, injured during the team’s two games against Minnesota (16-14-0, 11-4-0-0 Big Ten) in December, made 31 saves for Michigan before Steve Johnson and Tommy Novak rewarded the diehards who stayed.

“This wasn’t a 6-2 game. Certainly it could have been a different game if Steve Racine had not made some key saves at key times in the game,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson.

A hot Steve Racine is bad for Minnesota and it's bad for anyone who faces Michigan in the NCAA tourney if it keeps up. We all know Michigan can score. Pair that ability with a hot goaltender and you've got a contender. The Gophers aren't without blame in the loss, but ultimately I'd tip my hat to Michigan for taking advantage of opportunities and breaking the game open.

What does the loss mean for the Big Ten title hunt?

Michigan now holds a two point lead in the Big Ten regular season title race. A win tonight puts the Gophers back in front by a single point. A tie and a shootout victory means they will be 1 point down from Michigan. A tie and a shootout loss will drop them to 3 points back. A loss will leave the Gophers 5 points out of first and likely hands the Wolverines the B1G title.

Minnesota has the easier remaining schedule, with a road series at Michigan State next weekend and a homestand against Wisconsin to close the year. Michigan closes at home with Ohio State and then finishes out on the road against Penn State. Michigan winning all four 4 more games is a pretty safe bet, especially if the Racine the Gophers saw last night sticks around. That means the Gophers really need a win tonight to regain a 1 point lead and first place.

What does the loss mean for Minnesota's at-large bid chances?

While they aren't mathematically eliminated from an at-large bid, I'm comfortable saying that the Gophers must now win the B1G Tournament (and the conference auto-bid) if they want to get into the NCAA Tournament. This isn't a shocking prediction if you've been watching this season but let's break it down with some numbers.

One week ago Jim Dahl predicted that the Gophers would need to win all 6 of their remaining games in order to "guarantee" an at large bid:

The #16 Minnesota Gophers have 6 games remaining, and most likely need 5 wins just to maintain that ranking going into the conference tournament.

That should be no surprise, as all the way back on January 6, I published a chart on Minnesota that suggested Minnesota needed to win about 12 of its remaining 16 to end up ranked #15-16. Including two additional tournament games, Minnesota has gone 8-4 over that period, leaving them little room for additional losses.

(Consider this your reminder to bookmark College Hockey Ranked to get Jim's #MATHS on a regular basis).

On Wednesday, Jim had some updated projections based solely on the potential outcomes of this Michigan series:

If Minnesota gets swept by Michigan, it will face a broad range of potential outcomes that stretches as low as #25. #19-23 are all reasonably likely in that scenario.

Even had Minnesota swept Michigan, they'd have been in a precarious spot if they moved to 15th as expected (at-large teams really want to be 14th or better in the Pairwise to "assure" an at-large bid, as there are going to be teams outside the Top 16 who snag conference auto-bids). With only a single win, their most likely PairWise rank is 17th which completely eliminates the auto-bid outcome. And if they get swept we should definitely stop talking about it.

So where do the Gophers go from here?

Minnesota still has two goals to achieve:

1) Win the Big Ten regular season title

2) Earn an auto-big to play at the Xcel in the West Regional.

Honestly, I think they need to win 5 in a row to close the season to achieve #1. If they fail to win the regular season title they'll need 2 B1G tournament wins to go to the NCAA Tourney so long as they finish 2nd behind Michigan. To achieve both goals my gut says Minnesota is going to need to win out (i.e. win 7 straight games). Not an easy feat, especially not when that stretch likely includes two matchups against Michigan.

My prediction? Minnesota fails to win the regular season title but puts together a pair of B1G tourney wins to get the chance to bow out to St. Cloud at the X.