The Minnesota Golden Gophers will host their first playoff series at Mariucci Arena since March 2013 when the Michigan Wolverines come to town for a Big Ten Quarterfinal best-of-three series this weekend. The Gophers earned the third seed in the Big Ten Tournament and will host the sixth seeded Wolverines who finished just two points behind Minnesota in the Big Ten regular season standings. The winner will advance to face the highest advancing seed next weekend in a single game semifinal matchup.
Minnesota did all they could to earn the third seed prior to last weekend. Minnesota did not play a conference opponent last weekend and instead earned their first home sweep since November of 2017 over then #12 Arizona State. Minnesota got a 5-1 win on Friday night and a 5-2 win on Saturday. Both Gopher goaltenders picked up a win last weekend, but Bob Motzko made it clear earlier this week that Mat Robson will get the start in goal Friday night and it’s his net to lose for the rest of the weekend. He has a career 2-1-1 all time record against Michigan.
Minnesota will go into the playoff series with a few injury questions. Three Gophers were injured by questionable plays by the Sun Devils last weekend. Sammy Walker took a slash to his wrist and missed a bit of time but returned to the game last Saturday. The same with Sampo Ranta who took a flying elbow from an Arizona State player. Ranta received several stitches on his chin but returned in the third period last Saturday. However, the Gophers will be missing Nathan Burke this weekend. Burke was injured on a kneeing penalty in the second period of Saturday night’s game and did not return. The Sun Devil player got only a two minute penalty but it looked like it could have been five. Motzko revealed earlier this week that Burke would be out 4-6 weeks with a lower body injury—effectively ending his freshman season unless the Gophers make a miracle run to the Frozen Four.
Burke was having a good end to his season on the freshmen line that consisted of Burke, Walker and Blake McLaughlin. It will be interesting to see what roster decision Motzko makes to try and maintain the offensive production that line has had of late as it will be key to the Gophers success this weekend.
Minnesota will need offensive production from its top two lines for sure. Brent Gates, Jr had a good weekend against the Sun Devils recording four points and was named the Big Ten’s Second Star of the Week for it. Add Tyler Sheehy who is tied for first in the country with 23 power play points on the season and has had good success against the Wolverines. He leads all active Gophers with 22 points and nine goals in 17 career games against Michigan. Tommy Novak and Rem Pitlick each have 16 career points against the Wolverines. Pitlick has been an offensive genus at times for the Gophers and leads the Gophers in points with 41 and goals with 19. His points total is good enough for a tie for fifth in the nation and second in the Big Ten while his goal total ranks first in the conference and sixth in the nation.
Michigan has played the Gophers tough in the recent past. They seem to have a few players who have a knack for scoring against Minnesota. Will Lockwood would be one of them. The sophomore forward leads the Wolverines with 15 goals on the season and his points are second on the team to future NHL defenseman Quinn Hughes who has 33. Lockwood has eight points in eight career games against Minnesota. Junior Nick Pastujov has been hot as of late for the Wolverines as he enters the weekend on a three-game point streak. He has career highs this season in points with 23, goals with 11 and assists with 12.
In net the Wolverines have gone with a platoon of Strauss Mann and Hayden Lavigne. Mann has started three of the last four for Michigan and played in three of the four games against the Gophers this season. Mann played both games in Ann Arbor which ended in a tie and a loss to the Gophers. Lavigne got the win in the Friday night game in Minneapolis and then game into the game in relief of Mann who was yanked in the loss Saturday in Minnesota. neither goalie has been impressive this season with save percentages of .896 for Mann and .884 for Lavigne.
As has been the case for most Gopher games this season special teams will most likely be key. Minnesota struggled on the power play last weekend going just 2-13 against the Sun Devils but they still remain seventh in the country with a 24.22% success rate on the man advantage. Michigan has not been nearly as good coming in at 41st in the country with a 16.33% success rate on the power play. Michigan is not any better on the penalty kill ranking 48th in the nation with a 78.23% success rate while the Gophers rank 19th with a 83.2% kill rate. They say numbers don’t lie—and if thats the case the Gophers need to take advantage of their power plays this weekend and get up early and not let off the gas. If you can put the Wolverines down early they may just fold away. Michigan is just 3-9-3 this season when their opponent leads after one period. They are just 1-6-4 when trailing after two periods. On the other hand the Wolverines don’t give up many leads. They are 5-0-2 when leading after 1 and 11-3-0 when leading after two. The Gophers need to score first and score often and put the Wolverines behind the eight ball.
Winning Friday night will also be key for Minnesota. While the Gophers are 5-5-2 in the opening game of Big Ten series this season the Wolverines are a whopping 8-2-2. But they have struggled significantly in Game 2 on the weekend where they are just 1-8-3. If Minnesota can find a way to win Friday night, things could go very well this weekend for the Gophers.
Long story short, the Gophers are playing for their season. Two wins this weekend and they are alive at least one more week. A pair of losses and Minnesota is done until October, and we get to play the annual waiting game to see which players will leave early for the professional ranks. I think they get it done...probably in three games and get to play one more week.
HOW TO WATCH:
#6 Michigan Wolverines @ #3 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Where: Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis, Minnesota
When: 6PM Friday; 4PM Saturday; 4:30 PM Sun (If Nec)
TV: Fox Sports North Plus
Stream: Fox Sports Go
Radio: 96.7 FM (Friday); 1130 AM/103.5 FM (Sat/Sun)