The Minnesota Gophers hockey team will close out the 2021-22 regular season this weekend when the rival Wisconsin Badgers come to town for a series. Unlike Wisconsin who is locked into the 5th or 6th seed in the Big Ten Tournament and does not have much to play for but pride, the Gophers still have a chance to bring home some hardware this weekend. it will take a bit of the luck O’ the Irish, but by Saturday night the Gophers could be skating around their first Big Ten regular season title since 2016-17.
The Gophers head into the final series of the year two points back of the Michigan Wolverines in the Big Ten standings. If Michigan can win four points at Notre Dame this weekend then the conference title is theirs, no matter what the Gophers can do. But, if the Irish can take at least three points from Michigan and the Gophers can sweep Wisconsin, then the Big Ten title would belong to the Gophers. No matter what, the Gophers are at worst locked into the #2 spot in the conference standings.
The main benefit of winning the regular season crown is getting a bye directly into the Big Ten semifinals, and not needing to play a best-of three series next weekend. The #2 seed will play either Michigan State or Penn State at home next weekend depending on the results of the series between those two teams this weekend.
Minnesota will still need to take care of business no matter what happens in the Michigan/Notre Dame series. The Gophers are on their longest winning streak of the season with three consecutive sweeps over Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State and have outscored their opponents 24-11 over the last three weekends. Much of that credit goes to junior goalie Justen Close who has stepped into the void left after Jack LaFontaine left for the NHL and has played great going 9-3 with a .924 save percentage and a 2.00 goals against average. That’s all the Gophers could have asked of him, and he is helping them try hard to clinch a conference title.
Offensively, the Gophers may have their full lineup on the ice for the first time since November. All three Olympians have returned with Mathew Knies expected back in the lineup after not playing in the series finale at Penn State unlike Ben Meyers and Brock Faber. Freshman forward Chaz Lucius missed the Penn State series after getting injured early in the week and Bob Motzko said it would be 50-50 whether he would be able to play this weekend. Same goes for senior center Jaxon nelson who was rumored to possibly be back last weekend from a broken ankle he suffered in November, but did not play. Hopefully he can make his 2022 debut against the Badgers.
Minnesota will look for a pair of wins to continue their climb up the Pairwise standings as well. Minnesota is in fifth place headed into the weekend with only Michigan, Minnesota State, Denver, and Western Michigan ahead of them. Western Michigan heads t Grand Forks for a huge series against North Dakota this week that could have large pairwise implications as the Fighting Hawks have been rising as well and currently are in 6th place right behind the Gophers. It’s possible Minnesota could be sitting in a #1 NCAA seed position by the end of the weekend, or could be sliding back as far as a #3 seed.
The potential is there for a great and memorable weekend for this team, but they need to take care of their own business first. Get the sweep over an overmatched Wisconsin team, and then see if Notre Dame can lend you a hand. Stay hot, play smart and get ready for the postseason.
Minnesota will honor their six seniors AFTER Saturday night’s game. Seniors Ben Brinkman, Grant Cruikshank, Matt Denman, Blake McLaughlin, Sammy Walker and graduate student Sam Rossini all have played a part in this season one way or another and it would be great to roll in Senior Night celebrations with a title as well.
Notre Dame and Michigan will begin both games of their series before the start of the Minnesota Wisconsin games. Both will stream live on Peacock with a 6:30 puck drop on Friday and a 5 PM puck drop Saturday. Minnesota will know by the end of the first period Saturday night whether or not a Big Ten title opportunity is in play.
HOW TO WATCH:
Wisconsin Badgers @ #4 Minnesota Gophers
Where: 3M Arena at Mariucci, Minneapolis, Minnesota
When: 8PM Friday; 7 PM Saturday
TV: ESPNU (Friday); Big Ten Network (Saturday)
Radio: 1130 AM/103.5 FM/ IHeart Radio