The Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey team will start the final stretch of the Big Ten season when they host the Michigan Wolverines in a series this weekend at Mariucci Arena. Minnesota is currently tied for fourth place and the final home ice spot in the Big Ten with Wisconsin at the mid-point of the season. While this weekend is just two of twelve games left in the regular season, its an opportunity for Minnesota to try and make up some ground on the teams above them in the standings by beating up on a team below them.
The Gophers completed their non-conference schedule the last two weekends with three wins in four games. Minnesota swept a pair from Army West Point before splitting a home and home series last weekend against then #1 St. Cloud State. The Gophers have a fairly strong non-conference resume with wins over the Huskies, a sweep over #3 Clarkson, and a win at North Dakota. This places them currently #9 in the pairwise coming into the weekend.
The Gophers are in a much more tenuous spot in the Big Ten. After winning the regular season championship the past four seasons, its evident that Minnesota will not make it five in a row. Notre Dame is running away with the league title at the moment as they are a perfect 12-0 in Big Ten play. They have a 14 point lead, or the equivalent lead of nearly three and a half wins over second place Ohio State. The Buckeyes have a two point lead over third place Penn State, and will have a big series against one another this weekend in Pennsylvania. Minnesota and Wisconsin each have 14 points, six behind the Nittany Lions. Michigan is two back of the Gophers and Badgers, and the Michigan State Spartans bring up the rear with just eight points. The positioning over the last twelve games will be key for all of the teams. Remember that under the new Big Ten Tournament system this year the #1 overall seed will get a first round bye while the number 2, 3, and 4 teams will host 7, 6, and 5 respectively in the first round in a best-of-three game series. Thus Minnesota will need to play better down the stretch in conference to ensure home ice for the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Minnesota will look to build off of last Sunday’s 2-0 shutout win over St. Cloud State. Sophomore goalie Mat Robson got his second win on the season in the game and his first shutout as a Gopher. For his performance he was rewarded with the Big Ten’s #1 Star of the Week. The question this week will be whether Don Lucia keeps splitting his goalies on the weekend, or whether Robson’s last two performances where he has allowed just one goal will get him an entire weekend. Eric Schierhorn was not good against the Huskies in St. Cloud last weekend but had a 1.65 goals against average in his three games prior to the Huskie series.
Minnesota will look to fair better against the Wolverines this weekend then they did in Ann Arbor back in November. The Gophers blew a pair of three goal leads on the weekend and lost in overtime on Friday night before salvaging a tie and a shootout win on Saturday. One big advantage for the Gophers this weekend will be that the games are at Mariucci Arena. Minnesota is 11-2 this season at home and are 34-8-3 all time in Big Ten play at home. If Minnesota can play up to their potential and get a home sweep they would be guaranteed to make up ground on at least one of Ohio State and Penn State as the two teams play one another this weekend. Making up ground thie next two weekend against the Wolverines and Spartans will be huge as Minnesota finishes the season with series against the top four teams in the conference ,including road series at Wisconsin and Penn State. With the Gophers being an abysmal 1-8-1 on the road this season, they absolutely need to drop as few points at home as possible the rest of the season.
Both the Gophers and Wolverines will be missing key players this weekend. The Gophers will be without Tommy Novak for at least one more weekend. The junior forward is second in the team in scoring with 18 points on the year but did not play last weekend and was seen with his right arm in a cast. Novak is officially listed as week to week, and Minnesota will hope to get him back as soon as they are able. Meanwhile the Wolverines will be missing sophomore forward Will Lockwood. Lockwood has 11 points on the season for the Wolverines including a goal and three assists against Minnesota in Ann Arbor back in November. He injured his shoulder playing for the US in the World Junior Tournament and it appears he will miss the remainder of the season.
Missing Novak once again means the Gophers will need to get offensive punch from others in their lineup. Casey Mittelstatdt will hopefully have a big impact this weekend for the Gophers coming off of his MVP performance in the World Junior Tournament for the US. Meanwhile junior captain Tyler Sheehy had a big breakout game with four points against the Wolverines in November and sits at 97 points for his career, just three short of being the 84th member of the Minnesota 100-Points club. Another member of that club, senior Mike Szmatula (even though he scored the majority of his points for Northeastern before transferring to Minnesota but semantics....)has goals in the last three games for the Gophers and points in the last four. If he can remain hot, that will definitely help what has been a surprisingly punchless Minnesota offense try and help the team win.
Defensively Minnesota will need to shut down the Michigan DMC line—Dexter Dancs, Cooper Marody and Tony Calderone. They failed at this in Ann Arbor in November and Calderone scored three of his team leading fifteen goals on the weekend against the Gophers while Dancs added a goal and an assist and Marody had four assists. If the Gopher defense can do a better job of holding this DMC line in check, they should have a much easier time this weekend. Not blowing back to back three goal leads in the third period would help a lot too.
Minnesota needs to take advantage need to use it to their advantage. It is sweep or bust for this team if they want to ensure home ice for the Big Ten Tournament first round, because they will have much harder weekends in the future. Hopefully at the end of Saturday night’s game the Battle Hymn will ring out and the Gophers can celebrate a job well done.
HOW TO WATCH
Michigan Wolverines @ #9 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Where: Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis, Minnesota
When: 7PM Friday and Saturday
TV: Fox Sports North Plus
Radio: 1130 AM, 103.5 FM, IHeart Radio App