Bob Motzko has seen it all season. His Gophers men’s hockey team would put together a solid, consistent, successful weekend, with hopes of building off it.
Then, the Gophers would fall into a downward spiral, stringing together losses that have led to their late-season reality — a team with 13-14-4 record and only one realistic route to make the NCAA tournament.
It happened early, when the Gophers followed up a season-opening tie and a win against defending national champion Minnesota Duluth with a 1-5 stretch that included a home loss to bottom-feeder St. Lawrence. And it’s happened recently, when Minnesota followed a promising road sweep with a 1-4 skid.
But with two weeks left in the regular season, the Gophers are on the ascending portion of the roller coaster. They are coming off their best showing of the season, a sweep of then-No. 2 Ohio State in Columbus in a pair of 4-3 victories in which they never trailed.
“That was huge,” said Gophers freshman forward Nathan Burke, the Big Ten’s first star this week. “It put us in the right mind-set and got us looking in the right direction.”
Added Motzko, cautiously: “It was a good weekend. … Hopefully, we’ve learned some lessons. We’ve done this before. Let’s hope we’re in a way better place in how to handle things.”
That starts for the Gophers on Friday and Saturday at 3M Arena at Mariucci, where they face Notre Dame in their final Big Ten regular-season series. Minnesota sits second in the standings, and a sweep of the Fighting Irish would secure home ice for the best-of-three first-round playoffs.
The Gophers’ closest pursuers in the Big Ten race — Notre Dame, Michigan and Penn State — all have four conference games left compared to two for Minnesota, which closes regular-season play next weekend with a nonconference series against Arizona State.
Momentum gained from the sweep at Ohio State will be put to the test against Notre Dame, the national runner-up last year but a team that’s also fighting to reach the NCAA tournament. The Irish (16-11-3) are a pedestrian 4-6-2 since Jan. 1, which includes the Gophers’ sweep by scores of 5-1 and 2-1 in South Bend. That gave Minnesota hope that maybe things were changing.
“We’ve had those feel-good weekends this year, and that was one of ’em,” Motzko said. “The negative is we didn’t build off it. After that weekend, we didn’t do very well for a few weeks.”
No, they didn’t.
The Gophers were swept at Michigan State and split home series with Wisconsin and Michigan before hitting their low point, when they were blown out of Penn State’s Pegula Ice Arena by scores of 7-2 and 6-2. That left them 30th in the PairWise Ratings, the formula that mimics what the NCAA uses to pick the 10 at-large teams for its 16-team tournament.
The Gophers, who moved up to No. 22 in the PairWise after the sweep of Ohio State, have an extremely remote chance — 0.1 percent — to make the NCAA field as an at-large team, according to College Hockey News’ PairWise Probability Matrix. Instead, they must win the Big Ten tournament and its automatic NCAA bid.
“We’re playing for something now,” Motzko said. “We’re playing for home ice, but you still want to be playing your best hockey at the end of the year. Hopefully, that’s an indication that we are.”