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Minnesota Hockey: Gophers Host Michigan with Big Ten Title on the Line

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The Gophers are two games away from hanging their first banner since 2017

Brad Rempel—Gophersports.com

The #3 ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers men’s hockey team will close out the regular season this weekend with a home series against the #7 ranked Michigan Wolverines. Minnesota controls it’s own destiny to win the Big Ten’s regular season championship and earn a quarterfinal bye in the Big Ten Tournament. But if the Gophers falter, the opportunity is there for Wisconsin to slide ahead of the Gophers and claim the title.

Minnesota heads into this weekend after a unscheduled break. Minnesota did not play last weekend due to their series at Penn State being cancelled due to COVID issues in the Nittany Lions program. But the Gophers can not afford to be rusty in Friday night’s series opener against the Wolverines as the high powered Michigan offense will not delay to make the Gophers pay if they do.

Minnesota leads the season series 2-0 over the Wolverines after a sweep in Ann Arbor in December. That series was unique however in that multiple members of each team missed it due to being with their countries Junior national teams in preparation for the World Juniors Tournament. Minnesota will be back at full strength for this weekend having all three defensemen who missed the first series—Jackson LaCombe, Ryan Johnson and Brock Faber in the lineup. But the Wolverines will have most of their lineup back and ready to face the Gophers for the first time as well.

Michigan has a slate of very high powered freshmen— in fact the Wolverines top four scorers are all first year players. They are lead by Thomas Bordeleau who leads the Wolverines in scoring with 26 points—19 of them coming on assists. Fellow freshmen Kent Johnson has 23 points, Matty Beniers has 19, and leads the team with 9 goals and Brendon Brisson has 18 points and eight goals. The three B’s Bordeleau, Beniers and Brisson all missed the first series with Minnesota due to the World Juniors. Also returning to the lineup after missing the first series with the Gophers will be sophomore defenseman Cam York who leads the Wolverine defense in scoring with 16 points, However the Wolverines will miss fellow World Junior participant Johnny Beecher who injured his shoulder and will miss the remainder of the season.

In goal the Wolverines have been going with a rotation for the second half of the season. Erik Portillo has been getting the first game of the series starts as of late and has performed well with a 4-1 record, a .935 save percent age and a 1.67 goals against average. Strauss Mann who was previously the undisputed #1 for the Wolverines has been the game two starter and on the season has a 9-7-1 record with a .929 save percentage and a 1.87 goals-against average. The Wolverines are a very well rounded team who can play the offensive game, but also shut you down on defense. They average 3.55 goals per game which ranks ninth nationally, while their defense only allows 1.91 gpg which is fifth nationally. This is not the same Wolverines team the Gophers swept easily 3-1 and 4-0 earlier this season.

The Gophers do have the scoring and defense to match up with the Wolverines though. Junior Sampo Ranta continues to excel in what is probably his last season in Minneapolis leading the team and is second in the nation with 15 goals. Ranta’s 25 points lead the Gophers, but four others are right on his heels with Ben Meyers scoring 24 points on the season, Sammy Walker with 23, and a pair of seniors in Brannon McManus and Scott Reedy adding 22 each.

McManus, and Reedy with be honored in the Gophers Senior Day on Saturday along with fellow seniors Cullen Monson, Sam Rossini and another huge part of the Gophers success this season in goalie Jack LaFontaine. The shoo-in for Big Ten Goalie of the Year when it is announced next week leads the Big Ten and is in the top two in the nation in four major statistical categories. He leads the nation with 17 wins, and a .941 save percentage while he is second in the country with a 1.56 GAA and five shutouts. All three are also three of ten finalists for the 2020-21 Senior CLASS Award in recognition of their achievements on and off the ice. To be eligible for the award, student-athletes must be classified as NCAA Division I seniors and have notable achievements in four areas of excellence: community, classroom, character, and competition. You can vote for all three of the Gophers to win the award HERE.

While the Wolverines have some impressive national numbers, the Gophers are even better. Minnesota is ranked second in the nation allowing just 1.83 goals per game, while on offense Minnesota is tied for third in the country at 3.88 goals per game. In a series like this special teams always seem to be a key focus, and Minnesota is in decent position there as they lead the conference and are seventh in the nation on the penalty kill with a .869 kill rate. Michigan has a 14th best power play in the nation scoring at a 22.7% clip. The Gophers power play is just behind the Wolverines at 20.8% score rate, while the Wolverines PK is not as good ranking 26th in the nation at a 80.1% kill rate. The key it appears is for the Gophers to get on power plays and make sure they convert.

Conference Championship Scenarios:

Minnesota currently leads the Big Ten with a .750 winning percentage. The conference has moved to winning percentage for seeding due to an unbalanced schedule due to a myriad of COVID related cancellations. Wisconsin is currently the only team that could pass this Gophers on the final weekend of the regular season. The Badgers currently have a .705 winning percentage. If Minnesota takes care of business this weekend, they control their own destiny. But, if the Gophers slip up, they will need some help from last place Michigan State who hosts Wisconsin this weekend.

The Gophers currently have a magic number of 1.5. Each Gopher win or Badger loss counts as 1, and a tie by either team counts as 0.5. Thus the scenarios for winning the regular season are:

Minnesota goes 2-0: They win Big Ten no matter what Wisconsin does.

Wisconsin goes 2-0: The Gophers must go at least 1-0-1

Wisconsin goes 1-0-1: The Gophers must go at least 1-1 or 0-0-2.

Wisconsin goes 1-1 or 0-0-2: The Gophers must go at least 0-1-1.

Wisconsin goes 0-2: Minnesota wins no matter what.

Both games on Saturday will air in a doubleheader on BTN with Wisconsin @ MSU at 1:30 and the Gophers and Wolverines at 4PM.

Why is this so important besides what would be the first regular season title for Minnesota since 2016-17 or 1999-2000 for Wisconsin? The reason is the way the Big Ten Tournament is set up.

The Tournament will be played over three days at Notre Dame beginning on March 12th. The Big Ten regular season winner does not play on Sunday, but instead will open play in the semifinals against the 4vs5 winner Monday afternoon at 3PM. The second place team? They open play Sunday afternoon at 3:30 vs the last place team, and then would come back assuming they win to play the winner of the 3vs6 game at 7:30 Monday night. The Championship Game would be Tuesday night. It’s never easy to play three games in three days, so getting that first banner hung makes it a lot easier to try and get the second.

Minnesota controls it’s own destiny, but it has a much tougher task in dealing with the Wolverines this weekend than the Badgers due with Sparty. Here is to hoping the Gophers can honor their seniors well and hang something in the Mariucci rafters.

HOW TO WATCH:

#7 Michigan Wolverines @ #3 Minnesota Golden Gophers

Where: 3M Arena at Mariucci, Minneapolis, MN

When: 7PM Friday; 4 PM Saturday

TV: Fox Sports North + (Fri); BTN (Sat)

Stream: Fox Sports Go, BTN+ (Fri); Fox Sports.com (Sat)

Radio: 1130AM/103.5 FM/ I Heart Radio