The Minnesota Gophers men’s hockey team couldn’t quite win the Big Ten Regular Season title on their own last weekend in Madison after their loss to the Badgers on Saturday. The Gopher headed to Happy Valley this weekend knowing that just two points against the Nittany Lions would earn them the title. Now, they don’t even need that. Thanks to Ohio State’s shootout win over Michigan in Columbus on Thursday night, the Gophers officially own sole possession of the 2022-23 Big Ten regular Season Championship with four games yet to play. The Gophers have clinched the #1 overall seed in the conference tournament and earned a first round bye. But, the Gophers still have plenty to play for in their final four regular season games, and will need to do it shorthanded.
The Gophers seemed to have escaped Madison without any serious injuries, but earlier this week that was proven not to be the case. The Gophers will be down a pair of defensemen for at least this weekend as junior captain Brock Faber is week to week with an upper body injury and has been seen wearing a sling around campus. He may still return for the regular season finale next weekend when the Gophers host Ohio State. They will definitely be missing freshman defenseman Ryan Chesley who is out “until the playoffs” according to Gopher coach Bob Motzko with what is also being called an upper body injury. Chesley played the entire game in Madison on Saturday and did not appear to have any ill effects, but obviously something happened that will now cause him to miss the final four games of the regular season. Maybe it’s a good thing after all the Gophers clinched the first round bye to give Chesley and potentially Faber an extra week to recover before the Gophers would host a Big Ten Semifinal at 3M Arena at Mariucci on Saturday March 11th.
Despite the losses, Minnesota will still have a full three sets of defensemen as Carl Fish will join the team and play a regular shift. But they have zero depth behind him as Minnesota will not pull the redshirt off of senior Matt Staudacher. Minnesota will play with an extra forward this weekend instead of the extra defenseman they usually have liked to play, and it will mean a full complement of shifts not only for Fish, but for Luke Middlestadt and Cal Thomas as well with one of them joining the second pairing.
Minnesota also is looking to lock up the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament with a good finish to the regular season. Despite their loss last Saturday the Gophers remain ranked #1 in the Pairwise rankings ahead of #2 Quinnipiac who jumped them in the voter polls. The Gophers finish strongly with series against #5 Penn State and #9 Ohio State while the Bobcats finish their regular season with games against Yale, Brown Union and RPI, with Union the highest remaining team in the pairwise at #35. There just isn’t much room for Quinnipiac to move up, especially if the Gophers can close the regular season with a 3-1 record or better. No matter what happens in the conference tournaments, that should lock the Gophers into the #1 overall seed and most likely a trip to Fargo for their regional—and hopefully sans North Dakota.
Penn State does not intent to lay down and let the Gophers steamroll over them by any means. The Nittany Lions are fishing both for their conference home ice spot, and to climb the Pairwise as high as possible. Penn State currently sits #5 in the Pairwise, just out of the #1 seed spot, but currently sits in sixth place with 30 points in the Big Ten standings. The Nittany Lions have a pair of games in hand on both Michigan State and Notre Dame who are tied for fourth place just one point ahead of them, so the chances of PSU earning at least the #4 spot and a opening round home series is likely. But, they will need to get through the Gophers to make sure that it doesn’t come down to the last possible weekend.
Penn State has been one of the only Big Ten team that has found success against the Gophers in their history. Headed into this weekend Minnesota holds a 21-17-1 all-time record against the Nittany Lions dating back to the dawn of the PSU program in 2014. Pegula Arena had been a house of horrors for the Gophers until last season. Minnesota swept the Nittany Lions on their way to the Big Ten Regular Season title, but prior to last season the Gophers had been 0-7-1 over the past four seasons.
It should once again be a series of two powerful offenses. Minnesota is averaging 4.00 goals per game to rank second in the Big Ten and fourth in the nation and Penn State averaging 3.50 to rank third in the Big Ten and 10th in the nation. The two teams split a series in Minneapolis in November with PSU taking the opener 4-2 before Minnesota came back with a 3-1 win on Saturday. The Gophers will look to get their highly touted first line of Logan Cooley, Mathew Knies and Jimmy Snuggerud more into the action this weekend than they did back in November when an assist by Cooley was the only point of the weekend for the trio. The Gophers will need to start more quickly than they have in recent games as well. PSU scored the opening goal in both games in Minneapolis, and if Minnesota falls behind early the raucous Pegula crown, especially on THON weekend will let the Gophers hear it all night long. It’s time for Minnesota to take control of the weekend early on Friday and continue to maintain the momentum the entire weekend long.
But it will be a tough task for Justen Close to play without two of his top defenders in front of him. Close has been stellar for the most part this season but has had letdowns at times. This weekend is not time for one of them because the way PSU puts pucks on the net all the time, there will be no such thing as a break this weekend for Close—who was just named one of the semifinalists for the Mike Richter Award given to college hockey’s best goalie. But Minnesota will not go far in March and April without Close playing on the top of his game anyways.
With the regular season title clinched, hopefully the Gophers can avoid a potential let down that they did not clinch it themselves and can get out of Pegula with at minimum a sweep to keep their momentum moving in a positive direction into the final weekend of the regular season.
HOW TO WATCH:
#2 Minnesota Gophers @ #7 Penn State Nittany Lions
Where: Pegula Ice Arena, University Park, Pennsylvania
When: 5:30 Friday/Saturday
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio 1130 AM/ 103.5 FM/ I Heart Radio App