Their bye week is over, the struggles of late November and early December are in the past, and now the stretch run awaits the Gophers men’s hockey team.
Beginning Friday at Wisconsin, Minnesota has six regular-season games remaining to solidify its chances of making the NCAA tournament. Along the way, the Gophers (16-13-1, 7-10-1-1 Big Ten) would like to not only climb above .500 in the Big Ten but also move into the top four in the standings, gaining a home series in the conference tournament quarterfinals.
“We’ve got three weeks left, and we can control our own destiny,” junior forward Tommy Novak said.
Minnesota enters the Border Battle series with the Badgers (14-13-4, 8-9-3-1) in an uncharacteristic sixth place with 23 points, five behind third-place Wisconsin, four behind Michigan and three behind Penn State. “Those four teams are going to battle it out for three through six [in the Big Ten standings], and they probably going to be playing each other in the first round,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “It’s just a matter of whether it’s going to be home or on the road.”
One edge the Gophers have in the home-ice quest is that they have two games in hand on Wisconsin, Michigan and Penn State, with each win (if not in a shootout) worth three points in the standings. “But you have to win the games in hand,” cautioned Lucia, whose team closes with series at home against Ohio State and at Penn State.
The Gophers’ NCAA tournament hopes are more of a moving target. Minnesota enters the weekend ninth in the PairWise Rankings, a formula that mimics what the NCAA uses to fill its 16-team field. At ninth, Minnesota would be safely in as the first of four No. 3 regional seeds. But to maintain or better that status, the Gophers must win. Getting swept has major PairWise consequences, as they found out on Jan. 12-13 when they fell from No. 9 to No. 15 after being swept at home by Michigan.
“Every game from here on out is important,” senior forward Mike Szmatula said. “They’re going to have huge implications whether we win or lose.”
That starts in Madison, where the Gophers will face the rival Badgers, who have won three of their past five, including a 5-0 thrashing of No. 1 Notre Dame. Wisconsin is averaging four goals per game in that span, and Minnesota drags with it a 2-8-1 road record.
“Obviously, the way we score, we’re not going to win games in Madison giving up four or five goals,” said Lucia, whose team is averaging 2.47 goals per game, which ranks 45th among 60 teams nationally. “On the road, our score might have to be 2-1 or 3-2.”
With the Gophers not scoring up to their standards — and operating a power play that’s converting on only 13 percent of its chances (54th nationally) — they’ve had to rely on defense, tight checking and sharp goaltending. That worked in two wins over No. 1 teams — 2-0 vs. St. Cloud State and 1-0 in overtime vs. Notre Dame.
“It’s definitely not something we thought was going happen coming into the year,” Novak said. “We thought we were going to be a high-flying offensive team that scores a lot of goals. … It’s a whatever works kind of mentality for us now. We can win in different ways.”
Added Szmatula, “At the end of the year, you don’t really care how you win. It’s just that you win.”