The Gophers opened their hockey schedule in Duluth on Oct. 6. The 2018-19 season will end on April 13, 2019, with the Frozen Four championship game in Buffalo, N.Y.
That latter event seems irrelevant to the Gophers for now, and is used to make a point: There is nothing as discombobulated and overextended in NCAA sports as a Division I men's hockey schedule — a period of 189 days that includes strange breaks in the first three months of the marathon.
The Gophers and the Bulldogs played a week earlier than most, with the Gophers earning a tie with the defending national champions in Duluth, and then an impressive 7-4 victory the next night in Mariucci.
Over the three weeks that followed, the Gophers played two exhibitions and then were beaten by North Dakota in Las Vegas. They did not have another weekend series until Nov. 2-3 vs. Minnesota State Mankato, and lost twice to the Mavericks.
There was also the mindless December break that has become part of D-I hockey: the Gophers playing their fourth Big Ten series at Michigan on Dec. 7-8, and not playing again until 20 days later vs. Ferris State at Mariucci.
Now, it's January and logic prevails: Nine consecutive weekend series, eight the traditional Friday and Saturday nights, eight in a row in the Big Ten, and then a regular season finisher vs. suddenly relevant Arizona State.
Coach Bob Motzko was in his office this week and was asked: "Considering the start-and-stop nature of October-to-December games, does this weekend always seem as though it's the real start of the hockey season?''
Motzko smiled — only slightly — and said: "I'd say that if not for what happened on Saturday night. It looked like we were off the roller coaster. And then Saturday in the third period … here it came again.''
The Gophers had gotten a hat trick from freshman Scott Reedy and defeated Ferris State 5-3 on Friday. That put them at 4-1-3 in an eight-game stretch — one official loss in eight games. They were leading again 2-1 entering the third period. Ferris State scored twice. The Gophers went 0-for-15 on shots on goal. That made these the bookends to an eight-game stretch of competence:
A home-ice loss in overtime to St. Lawrence, now No. 57 among 60 teams in the PairWise rankings, and a home-ice loss to Ferris State, now No. 55. That put the Gophers at 6-7-4 and at No. 24 in PairWise.
Generally, a team has to be in the top 12 or 13 to gain one of the at-large spots in the 16-team NCAA field. Last March, UMD edged the Gophers by a fraction to finish 12th; then, as the last team in, the Bulldogs won the title.
The five teams that have made the most Frozen Four appearances are Boston College and Michigan (both 25), North Dakota and Boston University (both 22) and the Gophers (21). None would likely be in the tournament right now, with North Dakota, tied for No. 15, the highest ranked in PairWise.
UMass is rated No. 1. It played club hockey until 1994 and has never reached the Frozen Four. Penn State, No. 9, started varsity hockey in 2012, allowing the Big Ten to create a hockey conference for 2013-14. Arizona State, No. 10, is an independent playing its second season against a full Division I schedule.
What happened to the traditional powers?
"There are a lot more good teams out there," Motzko said. "If you look back, the Gophers and the other teams at the top played .500 against one another for years and dominated the bottom half of the WCHA.
"Now, you have the NCHC, that's strong top to bottom, and the Big Ten, that's strong top to bottom, and a weekend sweep is an accomplishment.
"A lot of it comes down now to the decisions you make in recruiting. That's the only way to get some separation. I mean, in the Big Ten, these are all serious hockey programs."
Motzko spent 13 seasons at St. Cloud State before replacing Don Lucia with the Gophers this season. He has watched one of his Huskies recruits, junior Ryan Poehling, put on a show in the World Juniors.
"What a player that kid is; what a family, with his twin brothers," Motzko said.
"I'm thrilled for the Poehlings."
He also would be thrilled if the Gophers upperclassmen can get some revenge on Penn State — the outfit that beat Lucia's team four in a row to end last season and his coaching career.
"The way the season's gone, it's going to be 2-2 in the third period, and we'll be trying to get a winning goal," Motzko said.
"The good news is we're in every game. The bad news is the opponent's in every game. We have to start stretching some leads."