The Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey team heads to State College, Pennsylvania this weekend to end the regular season with a series against the Penn State Nittany Lions. Minnesota needs just one point over PSU to clinch home ice for the first round of the Big Ten tournament next weekend, and with a sweep can leapfrog the Michigan Wolverines into third place in the final standings.
The Gophers are relatively assured of a NCAA at-large berth after taking four points from the Ohio State Buckeyes in the final regular season series at home last weekend. Minnesota enters this weekend sitting at #8 in the Pairwise rankings, and is relatively stuck in that position despite their recent success. The reason why are covered in Nate Wells most recent blog post linked here. With either a sweep or split of the Nittany Lions, the Gophers will remain stuck in that 7-9 range in the pairwise. Even getting swept would only drop the Gophers back into the 9-11 range. Barring a massive collapse of unseen proportions and worst case possible outcomes by other teams, Minnesota will be playing in the NCAA Tournament.
The Gophers would like more than that though, and that’s why home ice is so critical for the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. White the Gophers have played much better of late on the road—winning at Michigan State and sweeping Wisconsin in Madison, Minnesota is still a much better team on the big ice sheet at Mariucci. Minnesota is 13-5-1 this season at home, and just 4-8-1 on the road. When you consider that if Minnesota does get swept and has to head on the road for the first round, it is most likely a repeat trip to Penn State the week after getting swept...well things start to look a little bleaker.
But the Gophers can avoid that my just getting one point this weekend—the equivalent of one shootout loss. The Gophers would then be guaranteed the fourth place spot and would host the #5 team for a best of three series next weekend at Mariucci. Sweep the Nittany Lions this weekend? Minnesota will leapfrog Michigan into the #3 spot and get to host the #6 team. But it will take a sweep to get there. Even if Minnesota gets five points to tie the Wolverines in the standings, Michigan holds the head to head tiebreaker after Minnesota blew two three goal leads in Ann Arbor and then got swept by the Wolverines at Mariucci in January.
As for who Minnesota would see next week—its nearly guaranteed that it would either be the Nittany Lions again, or Wisconsin. Both PSU and Wisconsin come into the weekend tied for 5th place with 28 points, so it will come down to how the teams perform this weekend. The Nittany Lions obviously host Minnesota while the Badgers head to Columbus for a series against Ohio State. Depending on the results, either team could end up in the 5th slot though Wisconsin currently holds the tie-breaker against the Nittany Lions by virtue of one more Big Ten win. Thus, if PSU and Wisconsin get the same amount of points this weekend, and that number is more than 0 and less than 6, the Badgers will be heading to Mariucci next weekend. If Minnesota sweeps PSU, and Ohio State sweeps the Badgers, then Penn State will come to Mariucci. If Penn State sweeps the Gophers as long as Wisconsin also does not sweep, Minnesota will be right back in Hockey Valley next weekend. The only way Minnesota has to travel to Michigan is if both Penn State and Wisconsin sweep the Gophers and Buckeyes this weekend.
The rest of the conference spots other than 3-6 are locked in. Notre Dame will get the first round bye directly into the Big Ten Semifinals by virtue of winning the regular season title. Ohio State has locked up the #2 seed since they hold the tiebreaker against Minnesota and will host 7th seed Michigan State. Michigan can finish no worse than 4th, so they will host one of Penn State, Wisconsin, or Minnesota next weekend.
As for this weekend, it will be a good chance to see how the Gophers will bookend their season. Minnesota opened Big Ten play with a home split of the Nittany Lions in October, but this Minnesota team is a much different one than that one. For one, Minnesota now has the services of Mat Robson who was ineligible at the beginning of the season. Robson has been nothing but brilliant for the Gophers since becoming eligible in December. He earned the #2 star in the Big Ten last weekend for his win and tie performance against the Buckeyes, a week after earning the #1 star against Wisconsin. In fact, Robson has been one of the best goalies in the nation in the second half of the season.
On the season, Robson owns a 1.53 GAA (2nd in the nation among goalies with at least 10 games) and a .945 save percentage (3rd in the country among goalies with at least 10 games). #Gophers #PrideOnIce— Minnesota M Hockey (@GopherHockey) February 20, 2018
It obviously will be the first trip to hostile Pegula Arena for Robson, but Minnesota has fared relatively well there as a team. The Gophers are 6-2 at Penn State in their history, and are 15-4 overall against the Nittany Lions.
Penn State was in a bit of a tailspin as the regular season comes to its conclusion. The Nittany Lions split a series with last place Michigan State last weekend in East Lansing, and previously has not won since January 12th against Ohio State. Andrew Sturtz leads the Nittany Lions in points with 37, and has recorded at least one point in each of the last three games against the Gophers. He scored a goal in both games in Minneapolis in October. Additionally Denis Smirnov has been a Gopher killer with points in his last five games against Minnesota including four goals. Shutting down those two scorers will be key. Meanwhile, Minnesota hopes the Brent Gates, Jr and Tommy Novak combo stay hot. Both players have points in their last three games, and Novak has six assists in his last four games.
All the Gophers really need is a split this weekend. That should not be a problem for this team. Get home ice, and get ready to take out either the Nittany Lions or Badgers next weekend at home and advance to the really important games.
HOW TO WATCH
#8 Minnesota Golden Gophers @ #18 Penn State Nittany Lions
Where: Pegula Arena, State College, Pennsylvania
When: 5:30 Friday; 6:00 Saturday
Radio: 1130 AM, 103.5 FM, IHeart Radio App