The Gopher basketball teams may be sitting March Madness out when their NCAA Tournament fields are announced Sunday and Monday, but the most wonderful time of the year is just starting up on the hockey side of things. The Minnesota Golden Gophers open up the single elimination portion of their schedule with a quarterfinal game in the Big Ten Tournament against Michigan State Sunday afternoon, and will look to try and win the games in three days to win a Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2015.
The Gophers are the #2 seed in the tournament after losing the Big Ten regular season title on the final weekend to Wisconsin by a mere .002 winning percentage points in the final standings. That results means Wisconsin gets the bye directly into tomorrow’s semifinals against the winner of the 4/5 game between Notre Dame and Penn State, while the Gophers will play the #7 seed Spartans on Sunday. Assuming the Gophers advance they will play the winner of the 3/6 game between Michigan and Ohio State Monday evening.
Minnesota went 4-0 against Michigan State this season winning 3-1 and 4-2 in a pair of games in East Lansing in December, and 4-2 and 5-1 at 3M Arena at Mariucci in February. It will be a matchup of the Gophers high powered offense against a spartan defense that is led by it’s anchor in goal in Drew DeRidder. When DeRidder is on, he is one of the best goalies in the Big Ten—in fact he was one of three finalists named this week for the Big Ten Goalie of the Year Award. But when he is off his game, then the Spartans are in big trouble. Minnesota chased him in their final game in Minneapolis last February with four goals in the first period and literally cruised to a 5-1 win. Against Wisconsin last weekend he was spectacular in one game nearly helping the Gophers to the title in allowing just a pair of goals to Wisconsin to lose 2-1 on Saturday, but once again was yanked after giving up four goals in a period and a half to lose the Friday opener 4-0.
If Minnesota can get pucks past DeRidder, it should be an easy sail into the semifinals. The Gophers rank fourth in the nation averaging 3.81 goals per game. Senior Scott Reedy thrives against the Spartans with seven career goals in sixteen games, while Sammy Walker is the points leader against MSU with 12 in 12 games.
The Gophers can also win a defensive game if needed. Jack LaFontaine is also one of the Finalists for Big Ten Goalie of the Year, as well as Big Ten Player of the Year. He has been outstanding for the Gophers this season leading the nation in wins an 18-6-0 record. His goals against average of 1.68 ranks second in the nation as does his five shutouts. His .935 save percentage is fourth in the country. He is why the Gophers are fifth in the nation allowing just 1.97 goals per game, and have the best defense in the Big Ten. Meanwhile the Spartans have a woeful offense averaging just 1.5 goals per game—dead last in the country. Their power play is also last in the country at a woeful 5.8%. This is a game the Gophers should win easily.
Assuming the Gophers advance, they would play at 7:30 Monday night against either Ohio State who the Gophers have dominated this season sweeping 4-0, or Michigan in a rematch of last weekend’s series that saw the teams split a pair of games in Minneapolis. Up for grabs could be the final NCAA Tournament #1 seed with North Dakota, Boston College and Minnesota State already fairly locked into the other three. There is a good argument that whomever goes farther in the Big Ten Tournament between Minnesota and Wisconsin should be able to lock up that other top seed—and most importantly avoid a potential trip to get stuck playing North Dakota in Fargo. But watch out for the Wolverines. They most likely locked down their at-large bid last weekend with the split with the Gophers, they are a huge offensive threat and are not an easy team to play. The Wolverines probably don’t have #1 seed aspirations, but they are definitely playing for a high #2 seed at the moment should they get to the Big Ten Championship game. It would appear than any of the other four teams besides the Gophers, Badgers and Wolverines will need to win the tournament and gain the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament to get in. Of those the best chance would probably be the host of the tournament, Notre Dame. If the can get great goaltending from Dylan St. Cyr they have a chance to beat Penn State Sunday and upset the Badgers on Monday, but it will not be easy.
HOW TO WATCH:
BIG TEN TOURNAMENT—COMPTON FAMILY ICE CENTER, SOUTH BEND, IN
#4 Notre Dame vs #5 Penn State—11:00-BTN
#2 Minnesota Golden Gophers vs #7 Michigan State Spartans-3:00PM
Stream: Fox Sports.com
Radio 1130 AM/103.5 FM/ I Heart Radio App