The Minnesota Gophers men’s hockey team will look to continue to cement their spot at the top of the Big Ten standings this weekend when the Michigan Wolverines come to town for a series. Michigan currently sits in sixth place in the Big Ten standings, but yet ranks #8 in the Pairwise rankings and #7/8 in the national polls. Which Wolverine team will show up is unknown.
The Gophers bounced back into Big Ten play last weekend taking four of six points t Notre Dame. The Gophers tied the Irish 2-2 on Friday before dropping the shootout to lose the extra conference standings point, but came back to earn a 3- shutout win on Saturday. Justen Close earned his fourth shutout of the season and was rewarded with the Big Ten #2 Star of the Week honors for his performance.
The Wolverines returned to Big Ten play for the first time in 2023 last weekend at home splitting a pair of games with Ohio State. Michigan was run off the ice in a 7-2 loss Friday before earning the split with a 4-2 win on Saturday keeping the Buckeyes ten points back of the Gophers in the conference standings. Michigan has been uneven this season and comes into the weekend with a 13-8-1 record, but is still ranked #7/8 in he polls and #8 in the pairwise. Michigan has just 15 Big Ten points this season, 19 behind the Gophers. Michigan has split every singe conference series this season with the exception of the series against the Gophers in Ann Arbor in December where Minnesota earned a sweep.
That December series was against a very shorthanded Wolverine squad as a virus and injuries meant that Michigan only has three available lines and that included their third string goalie dressing as a wing on that third line. They just did not have enough firepower as Minnesota pulled away for a 5-2 and 6-3 sweep. You can bet with closer to a full roster the Wolverines will be out for revenge in Minneapolis this weekend.
Michigan should have almost their full roster suited up this weekend with the largest return from that December series being freshman forward Adam Fantilli. He leads the Wolverines with 29 points on the season and has recorded at least one point in 16 of his 18 games played this season. He currently sits second in the nation with an average of 1.61 points per game. His 11 goals ranks him second on the team behind Mackie Samoskevich’ s 13. Fantilli was one of two Wolverines nominated for the Hobey Baker Award earlier this week. Joining him was defenseman Luke Hughes who has 20 points on the season. In goal Erik Portillo has not had the success he had in 2021-22. He enters the weekend with a 12-7 record and a 2.96 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.
Minnesota continues to ride the hot glove of Close in net, and the freshman offensive explosion from Jimmy Snuggerud and Logan Cooley. Close leads the Big Ten in GAA at 1.97, save percentage at .925, and his four shutouts. Snuggerud and Cooley continue to lead the team with 29 and 28 points respectively, and with 12 goals each trail only Mathew Knies with 13 for the team lead. The Gophers continue to rely on their veteran blue line with both senior Jackson LaCombe and junior Brock Faber named Minnesota’s nominees for the Hobey Baker Award this week. LaCombe’s 21 points on the season is just two short of the national lead for a defenseman of 23. Minnesota will miss freshman defenseman Luke Middlestadt this weekend as he is out after suffering an injury on a check from behind crashing him into the boards awkwardly last weekend against Notre Dame.
This weekend will be a battle of the top two offenses in the Big Ten, and some of the best in the nation. Whichever goalie can step up the largest can turn the series. Minnesota is 5th in the nation averaging 3.88 goals per game, while Michigan is 7th with 3.73 goals per game. The Gopher defense has been much better than the Wolverines allowing just 2.33 goals per game to rank #11 in the nation while Michigan gives up 3.09 to rank 41st.
Special teams are fairly even with the two teams having the best two power plays in the conference. Michigan ranks #8 in the country with a 25.56% success rate, while the Gophers are right behind at #10 with a 25.32% success rate. On the penalty kill the teams are again similarly ranked with the Gophers killing penalties at an 80.95% rate to 79.65 for Michigan. The major difference is that the Wolverines are the third most penalized team in the country averaging 16.32 penalty minutes per game compared to just 7.59 for the Gophers making them the fourth LEAST penalized team in the nation.
Both teams are loaded on offense. These are the two most talented teams by far in the conference and are two of the tom teams in the nation. But the Gophers have a better defense from their blue line to their goalie. If they can play up to their skill level this weekend and earn another sweep of the Wolverines, Minnesota will be sitting pretty for a NCAA #1 seed while Michigan slides close to the bubble. Don’t think the Gophers and their sell out crown on Friday night wouldn’t love that.
HOW TO WATCH:
#7/8 Michigan Wolverines @ #2 Minnesota Gophers
Where: 3M Arena at Mariucci, Minneapolis, Minnesota
When: 7 PM Friday/ Saturday
TV: Bally Sports North (Fri)/ Big Ten Network (Sat)
Radio: 1130 AM/103.5FM/I Heart Radio App