The Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey team heads to South Bend for a critical road series against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish this weekend that could make or break their season. Minnesota currently sits in a three-way tie for second place in the Big Ten with Ohio State and Michigan State just two points behind first place Penn State. Minnesota’s opponents this weekend sit in fifth place—currently outside of home ice position for the Big Ten Tournament, but only three points behind the three teams in second place. There is no real margin for error as the last three weekends of the regular season play out for any of ythe above teams, so all will need to be on their game.
Minnesota split at home last weekend with Michigan State winning Friday night before blowing a lead heading into the third period on Saturday and letting the Spartans come back and get a victory. The loss meant instead of sitting alone in first place in the conference, the Gophers now sit in second, and have a lot of work to do to either hold tight on their spot or move on up. The Gophers played freshman Jared Moe in net both games last weekend, and he played well with the exception of the third period on Saturday. It will be interesting to see exactly what Bob Motzko wants to do this weekend, but I would not be surprised to see a split between Moe and Jack LaFonataine.
Notre Dame is the second team in a row to come off of a bye weekend before facing Minnesota. The Irish had the weekend off after earning a tie and a win at first place Penn State the weekend before. The Gophers will see a familiar foe in net in Cale Morris. The senior has played ten games against Minnesota in his career and has a 6-3-1 all-time record against the Gophers with a 1.78 goals against average and a .935 save percentage. Those are good numbers. But Minnesota has gotten to Morris before including a four goal explosion that was key to a huge Minnesota sweep of the Irish in South Bend last season. Morris’s overall stats this season are much more back to normal with a 2.67 goals against average and a .913 save percentage in 24 games.
On offense the Irish are led by a mix of older and younger players. Alex Steeves leads the team with 22 points and nine goals on the season. Cam Morrison is right behind with 21 points. A trio of west metro high school stars have played well for the irish against Minnesota and will figure to be on the score sheet this weekend. Eden Prairie’s Michael Graham and Nick Leiverman and Maple Grove’s Trevor Janicke all have hit the Gophers hard in the last few seasons, and both Leiverman and Janicke added a pair of goals in the Irish’s efforts to take four points from Minnesota at the beginning of November at Mariucci.
With a road trip at current conference leader and recent Gopher tormentor Penn State next weekend and a final series at home against Michigan for the Gophers, its critical to take away at minimum three points this weekend. A sweep would go a long way to keeping the Gophers Big Ten Championship and NCAA Tournament at-large bid hopes alive, and getting swept would effectively kill both dreams in one fell swoop. Minnesota needs to find the mojo that helped them last season get two big wins over Notre Dame in the regular season, and maybe, just maybe see if they can escape the demons of the horrible penalty call on Tyler Sheehy that ended his career and Minnesota’s season in the Big Ten semifinal here last March. If they can do that, then things could get interesting in these last few weeks of the regular season. If not...well then you need to prepare to be road warriors in the Big Ten Tournament and try to shock the world.
HOW TO WATCH:
Minnesota Golden Gophers @ Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Where: Compton Family Ice Arena, South Bend, Indiana
When: 6 PM Friday; 5 PM Saturday
TV: NBC Sports Network (Fri); NBC Sports Chicago +/NBC Sports Philadelphia + (Sat)
Stream: NBCSports.com (Both nights—Free)
Radio 1130 AM/103.5 FM/I Heart Radio