The Minnesota Golden Gophers will close out the Big Ten regular season this weekend when they welcome Notre Dame to 3M at Mariucci Arena. The Gophers will play one last non-conference series next weekend, but this weekend will be their last chance to rack up conference points in an effort to earn a home ice series in the opening weekend of the Big Ten Tournament. Minnesota will hope for a repeat of the first series this weekend when they got their first sweep of the year in South Bend.
The Gophers will look to build off of a huge weekend for them last weekend in Columbus. The Gophers swept the then #2 Ohio State Buckeyes and garnered the six conference standing points in the process. Minnesota was led by freshman forward Nathan Burke who was named the Big Ten #1 Star of the Week after recording four points on two goals and two assists in the wins over the Buckeyes. Sophomore Scott Reedy was named the Big Ten #3 Star of the Week scoring a goal in both games of the weekend. Reedy scoring has been key for Minnesota this season as the Gophers are now 3-0 when he pots a goal and 4-0 when he records a point. The Gophers even got a goal from defenseman Ryan Zuhlsdorf. It was his third career goal in 103 games as a Gopher...but his first goal in 99 games going all the way back to October 2016.
Both Minnesota goaltenders saw a game in the series last weekend with Eric Schierhorn picking up the win on Friday and Mat Robson getting the win on Saturday. It would be a logical guess that the same arrangement will occur this weekend as well with Schierhorn starting Friday and Robson on Saturday against the Irish. Robson does have a better career record against Notre Dame as he is 3-1 all-time in his career while Schierhorn is just 1-4. Minnesota really needs at minimum a split this weekend, and really can’t afford to have what happened after their first sweep of the year happen—they would answer by getting swept by Michigan State in East Lansing.
Notre Dame comes into the weekend after a home split with Wisconsin. The Gophers will try once again to figure out how to get pucks past Irish goalie Cale Morris. Morris is 3-2 all-time against Minnesota and up to the series in South Bend in January has just giving up four goals in four games against Minnesota. Well Minnesota more than doubled that scoring five against Morris in a 5-1 win on Friday night in South Bend. Morris has been quite good again this season that game not withstanding. His .928 save percentage ranks eighth nationally. Yet he has just a 12-10-3 record on the season. The Irish other goalie Dylan St. Cyr took the loss to Minnesota on Saturday night in South Bend but otherwise is perfect going 4-1 on the year with a 2.02 goals against average and a .935 save percentage.
Offensively, Bobby Nardella leads the Irish with 29 points on the season. Eden Prairie native Michael Graham leads the team with 11 goals with Edina native Dylan Malmquist tied for second with 10 goals on the season.
Special teams will once again most likely determine the weekend victor. Both teams have good power plays with Minnesota ranking #6 in the nation with a 26.13% success rate. Notre Dame are not far behind at 13th in nation at 22.73 %. Both teams are also in the middle when it comes to penalty kill. The Gophers kill 82.76% of their penalties which leads the Big Ten but is only 22nd in the nation. The Irish are slightly worse killing 81.05% and rank 31st in the country. However, the Irish are the second least penalized team in the country so Minnesota will need to take advantage of whatever chances they can get.
This series is critical for both teams but for different reasons. Minnesota will look to try and clinch a home ice spot for the Big Ten tournament to increase its chances to winning the whole thing—its only way into the NCAA Tournament this season. Meanwhile the Irish sit at #17 in the Pairwise and will drop far enough to probably end their NCAA at-large bid hopes with a pair of losses to Minnesota.
So will the Gophers get home ice?
Lets take a look at the Big Ten standings as we enter the last two weeks of the regular season:
A reminder that the Big Ten regular season champion will get a first round bye into the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament while the remaining six teams play. The #2 ranked teams hosts #7, #3 hosts #6, and #4 hosts #5 in a best-of-three series in the first round.
Ohio State is in first place and barring an epic collapse will clinch the Big Ten Regular Season title this weekend. They just needed 2 points against the Gophers last weekend, but Minnesota spoiled those plans.
Minnesota currently sits in second place with 33 points. However, the Gophers have just two conference games remaining while the rest of the teams except Michigan State still have four games to play. Thus, with Notre Dame sitting in third place at 31 points and having two more games than Minnesota left you can see why this weekend’s series is so important for home ice considerations. If Minnesota gets swept they will need A LOT of help to avoid playing on the road for the second year in a row.
The Gophers will get some help from some favorable matchups though. Fourth place Michigan with 30 points has to play the Buckeyes this weekend and then finishes at Wisconsin. Notre Dame will come off of this series with the Gophers and return home for a series against Penn State that could be for a home ice slot. The Nittany Lions will be in Madison this weekend—so for once the Gophers will actually be rooting for Wisconsin to take at least a few points.
As you can see there are so many variations on what can happen the last two weekends it is yet impossible to predict where Minnesota might end up, but it is fairly obvious to see the Gophers need at least 3 points to have any realistic chance of hosting in two weekends.
So predictions? The Gophers have yet to get a home sweep this season and unfortunately I don’t see it happening this weekend. I think the Gophers will get one, but that’s it. A split is the prediction here setting up a crazy final weekend where Minnesota can only scoreboard watch while they host Arizona State.
HOW TO WATCH:
#16 Notre Dame Fighting Irish @ Minnesota Golden Gophers
Where: 3M Arena at Mariucci, Minneapolis, Minnesota
When: 8PM Friday/ 4:30 PM Saturday
TV: BTN (Friday), Fox Sports North (Saturday)
Radio: 1130 AM/103.5 FM, I Heart Radio App