The Gopher Hockey team travels to Ann Arbor for a series with the Michigan Wolverines with an opportunity to clinch the Big Ten Regular Season Championship with some help from Penn State. The Gophers have a three point lead on the Wisconsin Badgers with four games to play, and the Badgers will have a tough series in Hockey Valley this weekend against the Nittany Lions. If the Gophers can record four more points than the Badgers on the weekend, Minnesota will clinch the regular season title with a series left to play. If not, the Big Ten title will come down to the last weekend of the regular season.
One piece of hardware Minnesota has already retained this season is the Mariucci-Renfrew Trophy. The trophy honoring former Gopher coach John Mariucci and former Wolverine coach Al Renfrew goes to the team that wins the season series between the two teams. First awarded in 1993, the Gophers hold a 10-9-2 edge in the series since the trophy has been awarded. Minnesota won the trophy in the 2013-14 season, and with 2-2 ties in the season series the last two years the trophy has stayed in Minneapolis. With the Gophers allready up 2-0 in the season series, the trophy is guaranteed to reside in Minnesota for another year.
The Gophers are coming off of a hard fought split against the Badgers at Mariucci Arena last weekend. The Badgers took Friday night’s game 3-2 when the Gophers slept through the second period and saw a 1-0 lead turn into a 3-1 Badger edge after two. Minnesota fought back to get one goal but despite a furious flurry Badger goalie Jack Berry stood tall and hung on for the win. Minnesota struck back Saturday night by the same 3-2 score. Minnesota jumped on top of Wisconsin 2-0 after one period on Saturday before Wisconsin tied the game after the second period. Finally Minnesota got the game wining goal when Justin Kloos beat Matt Jurusik in the upper corner of the net. The win pushed Minnesota back into a three point lead in the Big Ten standings and let the Gophers control their own destiny in the last two weekends of the season.
No matter what happens in the Big Ten race, the Gophers appear to be nearly a lock for the NCAA Tournament. The Gophers now appear to be playing for seeding. Even if Minnesota would go 0-4 down the stretch (they won’t) the Gophers would still most likely be on the right side of the bubble.
Even Minnesota collapsing down the stretch and going 1-3 against the two worst teams in the Big Ten would only drop the Gophers to between a low #2 seed and a #3 seed in the tournament. Meanwhile, thanks to the Gophers playing weak opponents the next two weeks, even if they were to go 4-0 there is still a chance they could drop from their #4 spot in the pairwise and a #1 seed to the #5 slot and a #2 seed. But even a split over the next two weeks and the Gophers appear safe with a #2 seed.
So while scoreboard watching the Badger/Nittany Lions series might be fun, all the Gophers really need to do is just take care of business in Ann Arbor. The Gophers have had some struggles in Yost Arena in recent years going 2-4 since the Big Ten began. Minnesota did clinch the Big Ten regular season title in the spring of 2014 on a Kyle Rau OT winner however. Minnesota will look to match the success they had against the Wolverines at home in January where they swept to 5-2 and 4-2 victories.
This Michigan team is reeling after losing several players to the pro ranks after last season. The Wolverines are 10-17-3 this season and just 3-11-2-2 in the Big Ten. Two of their three Big Ten wins have come at Yost over Wisconsin and Ohio State. But make no mistake, this is not a Michigan team that they have had over the last few seasons. Minnesota is much much better than the Wolverines. The Gophers 3.88 goals per game, good for 4th in the nation. Meanwhile Michigan only scores 2.6, 42nd in the country. The Gophers only allow 2.81 goals per game, while Michigan lets in 3.27. Minnesota had the 4th best power play in the country with a 26.2% success rate, while Michigan has the 41st best penalty kill at 80.6%. Tyler Sheehy is 8th in the country in scoring with 48 points, while the Wolverines leading scorer Jake Slaker only has 20 points on the season. While Eric Schierhorn has been an ironman in net for Minnesota, the Wolverines split time between three different goalies, Jack LaFontaine, Zack Nagelvoort, and Hayden Lavigne. Nagelvoort made 42 saves in a 1-0 shutout victory over Ohio State last Friday, but LaFontaine got the nod and lost 4-2 on Saturday night. So long story short, the Gophers can e expected to see two different goalies this weekend, but guessing which of the three will not play is just that...a guess.
Minnesota has the definite advantage, they should sweep. And if they can get some help from a Penn State team that swept Wisconsin in Madison two weekends ago, then they may come home with some new, but very familiar hardware.
HOW TO WATCH
#5 Minnesota Golden Gophers @ Michigan Wolverines
Where: Yost Ice Arena— Ann Arbor, Michigan.
When: 5:30 Friday, 7:30 Saturday
TV: ESPNews (Friday), BTN (Saturday)
Radio: 1500 ESPN