The path to the first Big Ten championship in coach Bob Motzko's three seasons with the Gophers isn't complicated. A win and at least a tie against No. 7 Michigan this weekend will guarantee the regular-season title for third-ranked Minnesota.
If it happens, Motzko will embrace the opportunity to hang a banner in the rafters at 3M Arena at Mariucci. Don't expect him, however, to lead a parade down 4th Street SE just yet.
"Who won the Presidents Cup three years ago? Who won it four years ago?" Motzko asked, referring to the trophy that goes to the NHL's regular-season champion. " … [The Big Ten regular-season title] is great for our fans, it's a great accomplishment, but we've got a bigger one we're chasing."
That would be the trophy that the NCAA will hand out April 10 in Pittsburgh. Should the Gophers collect others while pursuing their ultimate of the national championship, that's gravy.
"Right now, every week we play, we play for a banner — league championship, playoff championship, region banner and NCAA," Motzko said. "That's the pageantry. You don't want to go on this roller coaster either way. If you win it, you don't want to get too high."
The Gophers (19-5) are a shoo-in to make the 16-team NCAA tournament field and will face Michigan (13-8-1), which could bolster its tournament case. Last year, Minnesota entered the final weekend of Big Ten play against the Wolverines with a chance to secure a share of the conference title. Instead, Michigan got a tie and a victory to leave the Gophers in a three-way tie for second. That finish still fuels the drive for Gophers senior forward Brannon McManus.
"One hundred percent," McManus said of the motivation. "We have most of our team back. We don't have too many new faces to understand what's at stake and understand what happened last year. It's going to be a really, really fun weekend."
Second-place Wisconsin, which finishes at last-place Michigan State on Friday and Saturday, could pass the Gophers for the Big Ten title with a sweep and anything less than a win and tie by Minnesota. Because Big Ten teams will play an uneven number of conference games, the league is using winning percentage instead of total points for its standings and tournament seedings. The Gophers lead at .750, with Wisconsin at .705. The Badgers could top out at .729 with a sweep. Minnesota would be at .772 with a sweep, .750 with a win and a tie, and .727 with a split.
There's more than a banner at stake, too. The regular-season champion among the seven teams receives a bye into the Big Ten tournament semifinals, needing only two wins to take the tourney.
"We've got to win Friday night to give ourselves a chance for it," Motzko said. "The great thing is we control our own destiny. A lot of times, you're watching scoreboards and need help. We control it ourselves, and that's what we like."
The series will be the final one at Mariucci this season and could mark the final home appearances for seniors McManus, Jack LaFontaine, Cullen Munson, Scott Reedy and Sam Rossini should they not use the extra year of eligibility the NCAA is granting because of COVID-19.
"I know it's going to be emotional when the time comes and when that last buzzer goes off, whenever that might be," McManus said. " ... It's been by far the best four years of my life, and the best part of it is that we can for sure go off and do something special this year."
Chaska's Jimmy Snuggerud, a forward on the U.S. National Team Development Program's Under-17 squad, announced via Twitter that he has committed to the Gophers. The 6-1, 179-pounder has 12 goals and 12 assists in 32 games for the U-17 team.
Snuggerud's father, Dave Snuggerud, had 140 career points for the Gophers in the late 1980s, was a member of the 1988 U.S. Olympic team and played four NHL seasons. His grandfather, Jim Westby, played for the Gophers in the 1960s and was a member of the 1964 U.S. Olympic team.