By winning the Big Ten regular-season championship, the Gophers men's hockey team had last weekend off and a bye into the conference tournament semifinals while the other six league teams duked it out for the remaining three spots. Hoping to keep his players in a competitive spirit, Gophers coach Bob Motzko took the team on the road to his hometown of Austin, Minn., for an intrasquad scrimmage on Saturday at Riverside Arena.
"Well, my mom was excited,'' said Motzko, a 1979 Austin High School graduate. "That's the first time she's got to see one of my teams play for about six years now. It was a real good crowd. We had refs, we announced starting lineups, announced goals. We tried to give it as best a feel we could. . . . We needed to do stuff like that now, playing games vs. practicing.''
Motzko wanted to keep his team sharp for Saturday's Big Ten tournament semifinal against Penn State at 3M Arena at Mariucci (8 p.m., BTN). The Gophers last played Feb. 26, when they routed Wisconsin 8-0 on a festive Senior Night to extend their winning streak to eight games.
"It was great. They were very appreciative,'' Motzko said of the Austin fans. "… There weren't a lot of body checks, I can tell you that. … We were zipping it around, and a couple guys had hat tricks. You wanted to create a good feel, and that's what it accomplished.''
Captain Sammy Walker called the experience fun, but, no, the Gophers didn't get samples of Spam during the visit.
While the weekend off from competition gave the Gophers a chance to rest, and Motzko said the team is healthy, except for freshman forward Chaz Lucius, who will miss a fifth consecutive game because of a lower-body injury. The coach, though, was concerned about how the bye, forced by the odd number of Big Ten programs, can impact a team.
"It's a weird playoff,'' Motzko said. "It doesn't feel like playoffs when you get a bye, and you have a one-game shot. That's why I hope we get into [the game] quickly. … I've called around to the other coaches that have gone through the bye, and no one seems to like it.''
No matter the format, Motzko is eager for the postseason. "The most important thing is we get to play this week,'' he said.
The Gophers will be playing a fifth-seeded Penn State team that knocked off No. 4 seed Ohio State in three games, winning 2-1 in Game 3 on Sunday in Columbus. The Nittany Lions (17-19-1) need to win the Big Ten tournament to earn an NCAA bid, and Motzko expects to see a spirited group of Nittany Lions.
"I've been on that side before when you win a road [playoff] series. It's an adrenaline rush,'' Motzko said. "It's like a new start. We've got a hockey game here on Saturday night.''
Attendance challenge for U
In the regular season-ending series against Wisconsin, the Gophers announced their two largest crowds of the 2021-22 campaign: 9,350 for the 5-0 win on Friday and 10,069 on Saturday.
For Saturday's semifinal against Penn State, approaching a crowd of that size will be difficult given that the university's spring break starts Friday and students tend to leave campus. In the Wisconsin series, the student seating expanded from usual three sections to five sections, giving a big boost to both crowds. The boys' hockey state tournament Class 2A championship also is Saturday night, providing more competition.
"I'm expecting it's not going to be like what we just saw,'' Motzko said. "We're hoping there's some excitement and we get people here.''
The Big Ten has used on-campus sites for its tournament since 2018. This will be the first time the Gophers are host to a Big Ten semifinal. They had home first-round series in 2019 and 2020 and averaged an announced 2,111 and 1,873, respectively, though fewer people showed up.
All tickets for Saturday's 8 p.m. game are $20 and are available for most sections. Also on campus Saturday at 2 p.m. is the Gophers women's team's NCAA regional final against either Minnesota Duluth or Harvard at Ridder Arena. All tickets to that game are $15. For $35, a hockey fan could take in a tournament doubleheader at Ridder and Mariucci.
WCHA oozes talent
The amount of women's hockey talent on display last weekend at the WCHA Final Faceoff last Saturday and Sunday at Ridder Arena was jaw-dropping. The tournament featured two Patty Kazmaier Award winners, Minnesota Duluth's Elizabeth Giguere, who won the award at Clarkson in 2020, and Wisconsin's Daryl Watts, the 2018 winner at Boston College. It also had six of the 10 still in the running for this year's Kazmaier: Giguere, Watts, the Gophers' Taylor Heise, UMD's Gabbie Hughes, Ohio State's Sophie Jaques and Wisconsin's Casey O'Brien. Those players have combined for 141 goals and 203 assists this season.
Ohio State coach Nadine Muzerall, whose team won the tournament with a 3-2 victory over the Gophers on Jaques' overtime goal, expressed surprise that Gophers forward Abigail Boreen wasn't in that final 10. Boreen is second in the country in scoring with 58 points on 24 goals and 34 assists. That trails only linemate Heise (29-37-66).
Around the state
When the NCHC Frozen Faceoff is held March 18-19 at Xcel Energy Center, only one of the conference's two NCAA Frozen Four men's teams from 2021 will be there. That's because St. Cloud State, last year's national runner-up, and Minnesota Duluth will meet this weekend in a best-of-three first-round series in St. Cloud.
The Huskies (18-12-4) grabbed the No. 4 seed by beating the Bulldogs 2-0 on Saturday to earn a series split. Friday's 3-2 win for UMD (17-5-4) was key because it made sure the Bulldogs would finish at least .500 and remain eligible for the NCAA tournament.
In other first-round matchups, No. 8 seed Miami (Ohio) visits No. 1 Denver; No. 2 North Dakota is host to No. 7 Colorado College; and No. 6 Nebraska Omaha travels to No. 3 Western Michigan.
In the CCHA, Minnesota State Mankato stretched its winning streak to 13 games with a sweep of St. Thomas and will be host to Northern Michigan at 6 p.m. Saturday. Bemidji State visits No. 2 seed Michigan Tech in the other semifinal at 5 p.m. Saturday.
It's less than two weeks to go before Selection Sunday on March 20, and the top four men's college hockey teams remained unchanged. Minnesota State, Michigan, Denver and the Gophers, are the Nos. 1 through 4 teams in the PairWise Ratings and are in line to be top regional seeds. Here's a weekly projection on how the regionals could look (an asterisk designates an automatic qualifier outside the PairWise top 16):
Albany (N.Y.) Regional
1. Minnesota State vs. 16. American International *
8. Quinnipiac vs. 11. Minnesota Duluth
Allentown (Pa.) Regional
2. Michigan vs. 15. Boston U.
7. St. Cloud State vs. 10. Michigan Tech
Loveland (Colo.) Regional
3. Denver vs. 14. Northeastern
6. North Dakota vs. 9. Notre Dame
Worcester (Mass.) Regional
4. Gophers vs. 13. UMass-Lowell
5. Western Michigan vs. 12. Massachusetts
Notes: Denver is host of the Loveland Regional and must be placed there. The PairWise had No. 6 North Dakota facing No. 11 Minnesota Duluth in Loveland, but that intraconference matchup is broken up by moving UMD to Albany and Notre Dame to Loveland. … Ohio State is No. 15 in the PairWise after is first-round Big Ten playoff series loss and likely won't hold that spot. This projection has Boston University bumping the Buckeyes from the field. … The NCAA Frozen Four is April 7 and 9 in Boston.