The Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey team will look to try and make up some ground in the Big Ten conference race when they host the #1 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Mariucci Arena this weekend. The Gophers were swept by the Irish in South Bend back in November.
Minnesota currently sits in a tie for 5th place in the Big Ten after their sweep of Michigan State Spartans last weekend. Minnesota is tied with the Wisconsin Badgers with 20 points apiece, three behind 4th place Penn State for the final home ice spot in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. The Badgers and Nittany Lions will face off this weekend in Madison.
Meanwhile, the Fighting Irish are running away with the Big Ten this season, Their 39 points are 14 more than second place Ohio State, and the Irish had a 16 game winning streak before the Badgers snapped it 5-0 at the United Center in Chicago last Sunday. They enter the weekend as the #1 team in the nation despite the loss with a 19-4-1 overall record and 13-1 in the Big Ten.
While Minnesota has a much better home record than a road one, the Irish have been unstoppable this season on the road. They are a perfect 9-0 in road games this season and are allowing just 1.11 goals per game away from home. Gulp.
Notre Dame is led in goal by sophomore Cale Morris. One of the favorites for the Hobey Baker award, Morris has been nearly unbeatable this season. He comes into the weekend with a 18-2 record, a save percentage of .951, and a goals against average of 1.67. That drops to a minuscule 1.57 in Big Ten play. Minnesota scored just two goals on him in the two games in South Bend in November.
Offensively the Irish are led by Jake Evans. His 29 points pace Notre Dame, and Cal Burke’s 12 goals also lead the team. The Irish are not a high powered scoring attack like some other Big Ten squads, but if they can keep you from scoring, then it doesn’t matter how many they score—as seen by the Gophers 1-0 loss in the Friday game in South Bend.
While the Irish are a virtual lock to make the NCAA Tournament, Minnesota still has some work to do. The Gophers are ranked #9 in the pairwise coming into the weekend, at least a split with the #1 Irish would be huge for their NCAA Tournament hopes. But even if Minnesota can’t get the job done this weekend, their chances are far from sealed. According to www.collegehockeyranked the Gophers will have a very strong chance to make the NCAA Tournament if they can go 4-4 down the stretch of the Big Ten regular season, and then not get swept in the Big Ten tournament.
With home series against the top two teams in the Big Ten in Notre Dame and Ohio State and road series at Wisconsin and Penn State—4-4 will not be an easy finish for the Gophers. But, it is very attainable if they play up to their potential. The question is, will they?
Minnesota will need to continue to see strong offensive support from several of its playmakers who have had slower than normal seasons. Brent Gates, Jr appeared to wake up last weekend as he finished with four points against the Spartans en route to garnering the Big Ten’s #3 Star of the Week honor. Tyler Sheehy is starting to pick up his scoring pace to where he left off last season as he added three points in last Saturday’s win. Minnesota needs both of these players—and several that have slowed their production to fins the scoring touch. Rem Pitlick is a player MInnesota absolutely needs to score and he has gone into a bit of a slump as of late. If Minnesota wants to make this late season push, they will need their offense working on all cylinders as their defense has still left a lot to be desired.
I expect Eric Schierhorn and Mat Robson to once again split the series in net. Schierhorn struggled last Thursday but picked up a 5-4 win thanks to some late game Sheehy heroics. Robson looked much better on Saturday allowing just one goal in Minnesota’s 2-1 win. Both goalies will need to be on their game and may need to steal a game or two against tough opponents for Minnesota to feel confident in their at-large NCAA berth chances, and have a push for home ice in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
In short—the opportunity for Minnesota to both pick up some ground in the home ice race and to feel even better about their NCAA at-large chances is here this weekend. Minnesota will need to play up to the top of their ability to do it, and as we have seen all year, its a total question mark which team will show up. Hopefully, the Gophers can do enough at least to garner a split with the #1 Irish. We shall see.
HOW TO WATCH
#1 Notre Dame Fighting Irish @ #13 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Where: Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis, Minnesota
When: 7:00 Friday/Saturday
TV: ESPN 2 (Friday); FSN+ (Saturday)
Radio: 1130 AM, 103.5 FM, IHeart Radio App