The Minnesota Gophers men’s hockey team faces their toughest opponent of 2022 this weekend when Big Ten leading Michigan Wolverines come to town. It’s only two games of what is a 24 game Big Ten season, but these two games this weekend have the potential to make or break the Gophers season. It’s this weekend we will see whether or not they have a true #1 goalie on the roster, and if not if they can find a way to just outscore a power packed offensive lineup as a way to win games. Fail at either of those, and well, the dream of a successful season the rest of the way is pretty much dead. No, now, not much on the line at all this weekend.
The Gophers return back to the second half of the conference season after splitting against the Alaska Nanooks in their final non-conference series of the year. It was the first series in net for Justen Close who took over the starting spot after Jack LaFontaine left for the pros, and it was an up and down affair. Close held his own for the most part as the Gophers got a 4-1 win on Friday before dropping Saturday’s finale 3-2. Close ;let in a few soft goals on the weekend, but didn’t get much help from what is supposed to be a high powered offense as Nanooks goalie Gustav Griggles shut them down Saturday night. Close will get a much tougher task this weekend in trying to limit the pucks behind him by a high-powered offensive juggernaut in the Wolverines.
The #3/#4 Wolverines come in winners of their last four after sweeping #10 UMass and Penn State at home the last two weekends. Brendan Brisson leads the team with 15 goals and 30 points on the season, but the Wolverines have an additional five players with 20 or more points. Matty Beniers also has 30 points for the Wolverines with his 14 goals just one off of the team lead. Both of those players will be joining a trio of Gophers in playing for Team USA in the Olympics beginning in two weeks. The Wolverines next two scorers, Kent Johnson and Owen Power are both slated to play for Canada at the Olympics. Thus this weekend is key to both teams as in February they will both be missing key players.
The Wolverines do not have a goaltender problem, unlike the Gophers do though. Erik Portillo has stepped in and been great starting all 25 games for Michigan and allowing just 2.31 goals per game with a .921 save percentage. Good enough when your team scores 3.8 goals per game.
Minnesota will be looking for a big weekend out of their Olympians. Ben Meyers and Mathew Knies have been the best forwards on the team this year for Minnesota, and the Gophers will luckily get defensman Brock Faber back this weekend after he missed the Alaska series with COVID. Those three players will join Brisson and Beniers on the US Squad in Beijing. Minnesota should have all of their COVID positive players back this weekend but still will be missing Jaxon Nelson and Rhett Pitlick for this series due ti injuries suffered against Michigan State to open 2022. That means the Gophers upperclassman laden line of Sammy Walker, Blake McLaughlin and Bryce Brodzinski needs to show up this weekend. They have not been good at times this weekend and Bob Motzko basically called them out on it this past week. If the Gophers want to contend down the stretch, they will need to be large players in that. If not, well February could be a dark month.
The Gophers will be honoring the 2002 and 2003 NCAA Championship teams during Saturday’s game. Hopefully the current Gophers can use some of the former Gophers karma.
A split by the Gophers this weekend keeps them squarely in the conference race. Minnesota currently has 25 points, four behind the Wolverines who have two games in hand. Ohio State sits in second place with 27 points also with a pair of games in hand on Minnesota. Minnesota currently sits in the 12th spot in the pairwise rankings—squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Again, a split against the Wolverines won’t hurt here, but a sweep will. Minnesota needs to find a way to get at least three points on the weekend. They need to fin a way to break out of their inconsistency tendencies. Ye, they got the sweep over Michigan State to start the 2022 portion of the schedule, but with the split against the Nanooks last weekend the Gophers have now split 6 of their last seven series. They are living up to a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde stereotype, and that needs to stop now if they want to be able to control their own destiny down the stretch. We will get a really good idea this weekend whether or not they still have a goaltender who can give them that, and whether or not they will have the horses to get them there offensively. You never like to say that a team’s most critical series of the year is in January, but this one really feels that way for the Gophers. Hopefully they can find a way to dig deep and do what needs to be done.
HOW TO WATCH:
#3/4 Michigan Wolverines @ #11 Minnesota Gophers
Where: 3M Arena at Mariucci, Minneapolis, MN
When: 8 PM Friday/ 6:30 PM Saturday
TV: ESPNU (Fri)/ BTN (Sat)
Radio: 1130 AM/103.5 FM/ I Heart Radio