The Minnesota Gopher hockey teams both will have monumental tasks this weekend as they hit the road for critical conference series against highly ranked teams. The Gopher men are headed to Ann Arbor to face off against #3 Michigan for the right to take the Big Ten lead into the holiday break while the Gopher women head to Madison to play the #1 Wisconsin Badgers in WCHA play. While neither series will clinch or cost a conference title in December, both could have large ramifications on the conference races come February.
The Gopher men head to Michigan after their fourth consecutive weekend split. The Gophers spent Thanksgiving weekend in Grand Forks where they flipped their normal weekend script of late. Minnesota came out on fire on Friday night and took it to the then #7 Fighting Hawks grabbing a 5-1 win. Unfortunately Saturday looked much more like Friday had the previous three weeks as Minnesota slept through a lot of the game before making a furious rally to try and tie the game late in the third period, but they came up just short losing 3-2.
Minnesota will look to have the same success against the Wolverines as they did a year ago where they went 4-1 on the season. Minnesota swept Michigan in Ann Arbor last season aided by the fact that Michigan was missing much of their high scoring offensive talent at the World Junior Tournament—but the Gophers were missing their top three defensemen as well so it evened up.
Heading into this weekend both the Gophers and Wolverines have played 8 conference games with Michigan holding a one point edge, 17-16 for the Big Ten lead. Ohio State has two games in hand on both teams and has 12 points in third place. Thus, the conference led heading into the holiday break is up for grabs.
Michigan comes into the weekend on the backs of a non-conference sweep over Niagara. But the Wolverines are on a losing streak in the Big Ten after being swept in overtime by Notre Dame in Ann Arbor the previous weekend. If Minnesota can try and earn the same result it will most likely come down to the play of the various goaltenders.
Jack LaFontaine has looked better of late for Minnesota giving up an average f just two goals in his last three games. But he will need to be nearly perfect this weekend with the lineup of snipers Michigan will play. The Wolverines have seven NHL First Round Picks in their lineup and are led by forward Kent Johnson and last year’s #1 overall pick defenseman Own Power who each have 23 points on the season. Add 19 a piece from Matty Beniers and Brandan Brisson and 17 from Thomas Bordeleau and its obvious Minnesota will get no breaks on defense this weekend.
As much as LaFontaine will need to shut down the Wolverines, the Gopher offense will need to keep up as well. Ben Meyers leads the way for Minnesota with 16 points on the season, one ahead of freshman Mathew Knies and Blake McLaughlin. Knies has played great as a freshman this season and is one off the team lead in goals with 7. They will need Wolverine goalie Erik Portillo to be off his game. He heads into the weekend with a 2.17 goals against average and a .920 save percentage. He allowed just two goals last weekend in the sweep of Niagara, but allowed 8 in the pair of losses to Notre Dame. More of that please.
It should be a good weekend to see just where the Gophers sit headed into 2022. Most Minnesota fans would take a fifth consecutive split keeping them squarely in the conference race and setting up what should be a fun final two months of the regular season.
Can the Women put PJ Fleck on the Bench?
The Minnesota women head into Madison where they could really really use at least one win. Wisconsin is ranked #1 in the nation and it has looked the part sitting at 15-0-1 on the season. In their most recent series the Badgers swept St. Thomas and took control of the WCHA. Ohio State currently leads with 37 points, but has played two more games than the Badgers who have 33, and four more than Minnesota who sits in third with 22 points.
The Gophers come into the weekend seeing their 11-game winning streak snapped in the Championship game of the Smashville Showcase in Nashville last weekend. Minnesota defeated Mercyhurst in the opener 4-0 on Friday but could not beat Colgate for the third time this season dropping a 2-1 game to the #8 Raiders.
One high spot for the Gophers this season has been the play of senior Taylor Heise. The forward was named the National Player of the Year for the month of November where she score 16 points and 8 goals in just six games. She currently is ranked 3rd in the nation with 30 points.
Minnesota has not been getting consistent play in goal which has been an issue. Minnesota has played three goaltenders in at least seven of the team’s 16 games this season with Lauren bench getting six starts and Makayala Paul and Skyler Vetter each getting five. Trying to guess who will get the start this weekend in Madison is a total fools-errand.
Meanwhile Wisconsin just keeps marching on. Makenna Webster leads the nation with 33 points with her linemate Casey O’Brien right behind with 31. Kennedy Blair is back for her 5th year in net and she has been nearly perfect entering the weekend with a .951 save percentage and a ridiculous 0.92 goals against average. The deck is definitely stacked against Minnesota this weekend. Minnesota will look to get third first win at LaBahn Arena since October of 2018. Unless they can play a perfect game, that streak looks like it might stretch another season.
HOW TO WATCH:
#11/12 Minnesota Gophers @ #3/2 Michigan Wolverines
Where: Yost Ice Arena, Ann Arbor, Michigan
When: 5:30 PM Friday/ 6PM Saturday
TV: Big Ten Network
Stream: Fox Sports App/ BTN+
Radio: 1130 AM/103.5 FM/ I Heart Radio
#5 Minnesota Gophers @ #1 Wisconsin Badgers
Where: LaBahn Arena, Madison, Wisconsin
When: 7PM Friday/ 3 PM Sat
Live Audio: gophersports.com