Pardon Bob Motzko if he keeps looking over his shoulder, wondering where the next hit will come from. Since his Gophers men's hockey team completed a sweep at Michigan State on Jan. 8, Motzko has seen:
* Forwards Jaxon Nelson and Rhett Pitlick sidelined by injuries, and defenseman Brock Faber and forward Aaron Huglen shelved by COVID-19;
* Goalie Jack LaFontaine leave the team to sign with the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes;
* And Alaska, a sub-.500 orphan from the defunct WCHA, waltz into 3M Arena at Mariucci and secure a series split, handing Minnesota an embarrassing defeat in the finale.
"Is there more coming, except Michigan?'' Motzko asked.
That's to be determined, but the Big Ten-leading and third-ranked Wolverines (18-6-1) will present a formidable challenge for the No. 11 Gophers (13-9) at 8 p.m. Friday (ESPNU) and 6:30 p.m. Saturday (BTN) at Mariucci. Just as Minnesota got traction with its sweep in East Lansing, it now faces a crucial series against Michigan, a team that boasts seven NHL first-round draft picks.
With Saturday's 3-2 loss to an Alaska team that arrived at Minneapolis with a 5-15-1 record, the Gophers dropped from No. 8 to No. 12 in the PairWise Ratings, the mathematical formula that the NCAA uses to help determine and seed its 16-team tournament field.
Though not yet on the bubble for making the NCAA tournament, the Gophers can ill-afford many more missteps. That becomes even more important when factoring in the absences of leading scorer Ben Meyers, standout freshman Matthew Knies and top defenseman Faber for most of February because they will be joining the U.S. Olympic team.
"Right after the game [Saturday] we kind of had a little pow-wow,'' said Meyers, a junior captain. "It was like, 'All right, enough is enough.' ''
Playing Michigan should get the Gophers' attention. The Wolverines have 29 points in Big Ten play, four ahead of Minnesota, which has played two fewer conference games than both Michigan and second-place Ohio State. When the Gophers and Wolverines met on Dec. 3-4 in Ann Arbor, Minnesota rolled 5-1 in the opener before Michigan responded with a 6-2 win in the finale.
"They're a highly-skilled team, just like us, and we just have to come out and play the way we can, and we feel we'll get the result we want,'' Meyers said. "It's who doesn't make mistakes and who wins puck battles.''
Michigan has been good at winning puck battles all season, starting with wins over Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota State Mankato to claim the Ice Breaker Tournament in Duluth and extending through its active four-game winning streak built on sweeps of defending national champion Massachusetts and Penn State.
Forwards Brendon Brisson (15 goals, 15 assists) and Matty Beniers (14-16) share the team lead with 30 points, and right behind are forward Kent Johnson (6-23-29) and defensemen Owen Power (3-21-24) and Luke Hughes (9-13-22). Power was the No. 1 overall pick by Buffalo in the 2021 NHL draft, with Beniers going No. 2 to Seattle, Hughes No. 4 to New Jersey and Johnson No. 5 to Columbus.
"They hold onto the puck,'' Motzko said. "They will try to squeeze every ounce out of a play.''
The Gophers counter with the red-hot line of Meyers centering Knies and freshman Chaz Lucius. In the past six games, starting with the series at Michigan, the "Niners'' line of No. 39 Meyers, No. 89 Knies and No. 29 Lucius has combined for 10 goals and 12 assists.
The good news for the Gophers is that Faber and Huglen will return, so they'll only be missing the injured Nelson and Pitlick.
"We just need to settle down get the ship straight again,'' Motzko said.