The Minnesota Gophers men’s hockey team opens up NCAA Tournament play as the #1 overall seed Thursday night. The Gophers are the #1 seed in the Fargo regional and will face #4 seed Canisius the automatic bid winners of the Atlantic Hockey Conference. The Gophers are the #1 team in the Pairwise, while the Griffins are in the 40s. On paper, this should be a walk in the park for Minnesota, but anyone who has spend any time watching the NCAA Hockey Tournament over the past 20 years knows that there is no such game in the tournament anymore. And nobody should know that more than the Gophers, and their head coach who have both been on the receiving end of some of the most significant upset in NCAA Tournament history. To quote the famous Al Davis quote, “Just win baby.”
The Gophers come in off of a loss to the Michigan Wolverines 4-3 in the Big Ten Championship game for the second consecutive season. A year ago the Gophers were the #1 seed in the Worchester, Mass Region and they would defeat UMass and Western Michigan to get to the Frozen Four before falling to Minnesota State. They would like to extend their stay this season, especially with the Frozen Four in sunny Tampa Florida.
The Gophers of course are no stranger to the NCAA Tournament. They will compete in their 40th tournament this spring the most of any other team in the country—except for that same Wolverines squad who also is playing in tournament #40. Minnesota’s 58 victories in the NCAA Tournament are the most of any school. They are looking to get back to their 23rd Frozen Four, but to do that will need to get past Canisius, and then an in-state rival if they can earn an initial win Thursday night.
Minnesota has to feel good about their chances entering the tournament. They have a 12-5 record against the other 15 teams in the field this season, but of course are just 2-2 against teams in the Fargo region splitting home and home series against both St. Cloud State and Minnesota State. They will be the team that everyone loves to root against this weekend—from those North Dakota fans who kept their tickets despite the Fighting Hawks not making the tournament, to the rest of the fans from the other Minnesota schools who would love to see nothing else but the Gophers lose. But the Gophers know that, and they will be prepared for it. They just need to play their game.
That game will be to get their high powered offense in gear early. The Gophers are just 5-5 in one goal games this season but are 17-1 in three or more goal games. When the Gophers score at least four goals they are 19-4, but when they score two or less, Minnesota is just 1-4-1. This Gopher team is not built to win games 2-1. This team is built to win 5-3 or 6-4 and to do that the Gophers need to get out and put the puck in the net early. The first 40 minutes of the game is the key for the Gophers. When they lead after two periods they are 20-0 on the season. Tied after the second—they are 3-2. But despite their scoring prowess, if the Gophers trail after the first 40 minutes they are just 2-6-1 this season. And in the post season where teams are looking to keep games tight and not get into shootouts—that can be a death knell for the Gophers.
Canisius is one of those tight defensive teams. They love playing with a lead and packing in tight around a senior goaltender who does not let many pucks into the net. The Golden Griffins went on their run through the Atlantic Hockey Playoffs, winning the conference tournament as the #4 seed playing that type of hockey. They have played seven games in their postseason run to the NCAA Tournament and have not allowed more than two goals in any of those games. The pair of games of those seven that they lost, one was a 2-1 loss and the other was 1-0 in overtime. Minnesota will need to find a way to score and get out to an early lead—or else the grips on the sticks will definitely get tighter and this young Minnesota squad may try to try and do something on an individual basis to try and win the game. Now, that can work—we have seen lots of magical play from Logan Cooley and Jimmy Snuggerud this season, but all it takes is one crucial mistake and this Gopher squad could have their names listed with the likes of 2006 Minnesota, or 2013 Minnesota, or 2018 or 2019 St. Cloud State.
Keaton Mastrodonato leads the Griffins in scoring with 36 points on the season. Ryan Miotto is second on the team in points with 34 and leads Canisius in goals with 17 on the season. He has scored eight of his goals on the power play. In goal it has been a ride for senior Jacob Barczewski. On the season he is has a 2.41 goals against average and a .909 save percentage, but on the Griffs run through the Atlantic Hockey Tournament those numbers have been a miniscule 1.13 GAA and a whopping .969 save percentage.
Canisius has been a much better team in the second half of the season, but the only common opponents between the Gophers and Griffins came in the early portion of the year. Canisius is 0-2 against Penn State getting swept in the first series of the year by 5-2 and 7-5 scores at Pegula Arena. Minnesota is 1-0 all time against Canisius with a 1-0 win at Mariucci in October of 2012. Kyle Rau scored the only goal for the Gophers just 12 seconds into the game and Adam Wilcox picked up shutout #1 of his Gopher record 13 in earning the win.
This a game where if Minnesota can play their game and control the play, they the Gophers should have no problem moving on. If they can get the full power of the #2 scoring offense in the nation going, then then the Gophers should have no trouble moving on. Minnesota is better on the power play, at the penalty kill, and even defensively. On paper, this is a game the Gophers should have no problems with. But this is also a game Minnesota hockey fans have seen too many times in their history. The faster the Gophers can seize control and take a lead, the better every single fan in maroon and gold will feel about this game. Minnesota knows how they need to play, but so does Canisius. It will all come down to who can better make their opponent play their style of game and whomever does that should have the best chance to play for a trip to the Frozen Four Saturday evening.
#2 seed St. Cloud State and #3 seed Minnesota State will face off in the first regional semifinal at 4 PM on ESPNU. The winner of that game will play the winner of the Gophers and Griffins at 5:30 Saturday night on ESPN U for a trip to Tampa.
HOW TO WATCH: NCAA HOCKEY FARGO REGIONAL SEMIFINAL
#4 Canisius Golden Griffins vs #1 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Where: Scheels Arena, Fargo, North Dakota
When: 8 PM Thursday
Stream: WatchESPN/ ESPN+