The Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey team will look to regroup after two poor weekends in a row and keep their season alive in a best-of-three Big Ten First Round series against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Mariucci Arena this weekend. The Gophers are the #4 seed in the conference and the Irish are the #5 seed. The winner of the series keeps moving onward, while the loser’s season is over.
Minnesota is in a position where its win or pick up the golf clubs after a poor showing against Michigan at home in the regular season finale. The Gophers battled back from a 2-0 hole early in the third period with a pair of goals to force overtime, and then when noone scored in the first ot the Gophers gained one point and guaranteed themselves home ice for this weekend. Unfortunately it would be the only point the Gophers would record on the weekend as Michigan scored in double OT to gain the extra conference point Friday and then held off a listless Gopher team Saturday for a 2-1 win. The five points allowed the Wolverines to tie Minnesota and Ohio State for second overall in the Big Ten with 38 points, but since both the Buckeyes and Wolverine shad two more conference wins than the Gophers they took the @3 and #3 seeds while Minnesota was left in 4th.
Notre Dame comes in also on a bit of a cold streak. The Irish could have clinched a home ice spot with a five point weekend at home against Michigan State, but the Spartans won on Friday night, and then saved the Gophers from heading to South Bend by forcing a double OT situation on Saturday. The Irish got two points in that shootout win, but it left them with 37 points in the conference, one behind Minnesota and instead they head to Minneapolis.
Minnesota and Notre Dame have been evenly matched this season. Both teams went 1-1-2 against one another this season. At Mariucci in November the teams staked to a 2-2 tie on Friday before Sammy Walker scored in 2OT to get the Gophers the extra point. Minnesota then fell to the Irish 5-3 on Saturday. The two teams once again paired up in South Bend in February with the teams skating to a 3-3 tie on Friday night before Brannon McMannus got the Gophers the extra point in the shootout. Saturday was the opposite of what happened in Minneapolis as the Gophers picked up a 2-1 win with Blake McLaughlin coming up big for the Gophers. If it’s anything those four games revealed, it to expect that we probably will see overtime at least once this weekend.
Minnesota will need to try and get some scoring punch back in the lineup after being shut down by Strauss Mann and the Wolverines last weekend. Walker lead the Gophers in points this season with 28 and has had a good second half of the season. McMannus has 26 and Ben Meyers 24 points for the Gophers. Scott Reedy leads the team in goals with 15. In net the Gophers will most likely stick with the hotish hand in Jack LaFontaine. The senior has played well and has not given up more than three goals in a game since 2019. He will need to keep that streak alive for the Gophers this weekend for them to advance, and Minnesota will need to put the puck in the net.
As always when Minnesota faces Notre Dame that will not be easy. The Gophers will see Notre Dame senior Cale Morris in net at least twice more this weekend. He has not had the best senior season going 11-2-7 with a 2.49 goals against average and a .917 save percentage, but Morris always seems to get up for the Gophers. Even more so he gets up for the biggest games of the year. In Morris’s three seasons he has an insane 10-2-0 record with a .947 save percentage and a 1.66 goals-against average in the postseason. Another player who always seems to rise up against Minnesota is sophomore Nick Leiverman. The Eden Prairie native has five goals on the season—-4 of which have come against Minnesota. The Irish’s leading scorer Cam Morrison has also thrived against Minnesota with five of his team leading 25 points against Minnesota this season.
Notre Dame has won the last two Big Ten Tournaments. The Irish in fact are 6-0 in Big Ten Tournament play, so Minnesota will look to end that streak. This is a revenge game in many ways for the Gophers as the Irish ended Minnesota’s season in a 2-1 overtime win in the Big Ten semifinals last year. Minnesota fans are still bitter about the horrible call on Tyler Sheehy early in overtime that gave the Irish a power play and allowed them to score their game winner. Minnesota would love nothing more than to end Notre Dame’s season this year and keep on advancing. It could even be just the beginning of a revenge tour for Minnesota as the winner of this series has a fairly good chance to end up playing a semifinal matchup at #1 seed Penn State. Of course the Nittany Lions ended the Gophers season in 2017 with four consecutive wins in Pegula Arena. But that won’t matter if Minnesota can’t win two of three this weekend.
Minnesota needs to keep winning to keep any slight hope of potentially earning an at-large NCAA berth alive as well. The loss to Michigan last Saturday put them behind the eight ball and dropped them behind the Wolverines where they currently sit 17th in the pairwise. Minnesota most likely needs to sweep the Irish this weekend AND win a Big Ten semifinal game next weekend and reach the Big Ten Championship game to have even a chance at an at large bid. The margin for error is minute. The same is true for the Irish who sit at #20 in the pairwise. A sweep of the Gophers and a small chance of an at-large bid is still theoretically possible. Anything less than that and the automatic bid is most likely the only way in.
So this weekend comes down to who wants to keep their season alive more. Can Minnesota regroup and find a way to keep a potential revenge tour going, or will we see more of the meek play the past two weekends that just is not good enough. Will the Irish reply on their senior heavy team and stud goalie to advance, or can Minnnesota figure out a way to end Morris’s collegiate career? We will find out in the next 72 hours one way or another.
HOW TO WATCH—BIG TEN FIRST ROUND
#5 Notre Dame Fighting Irish @ #4 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Where: Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis, Minnesota
When: 7 PM Friday/Saturday 6PM Sun (If necessary)
TV: Fox Sports 2 (Fri/Sun), FSN Plus (Sat)
Radio: 1130 AM/103.5FM/ I Heart Radio