Gophers men's hockey captain Brock Faber heard the word, "Michigan'' during Wednesday's session with reporters and immediately flashed a smile.
"These are the fun ones,'' the defenseman said. "Obviously, it's turned into quite the rivalry. They don't like us. We don't like them.''
The fun for the top-ranked Gophers and No. 4 Michigan comes 7 p.m. Saturday in the Big Ten tournament championship game at 3M Arena at Mariucci. A sellout crowd of more than 10,000 will attend as Minnesota tries to end the Wolverines' reign as conference tournament champions. Michigan beat the Gophers 4-3 last year at Mariucci in the Big Ten final, something that still irks Minnesota's players.
"Everyone's excited to get a little revenge,'' said Gophers sophomore forward Matthew Knies, who scored two goals in the final minute of last year's title game.
Said Gophers coach Bob Motzko: "I've got a feeling both teams are really excited to play.''
At stake, of course, is the pride of securing a tournament championship banner, but there's more than Big Ten bragging rights up for grabs. This game can impact NCAA tournament positioning for Michigan.
- The Gophers (26-8-1) are No. 1 in the PairWise Ratings, the computer formula that the NCAA uses to fill its tournament field and that is constantly updating after games are completed. No. 2 Quinnipiac lost 2-1 to Colgate in double overtime in the ECAC semifinals, and that result secured the No. 1 overall seed for Minnesota, regardless of the Gophers' result Saturday.
- Michigan, No. 4 in the PairWise, has a slight chance to move up No. 3 with a win because No. 3 Denver lost 1-0 to Colorado College in the NCHC semifinals. According to College Hockey News' PairWise Probability Matrix, the Wolverines (23-11-3) have a 9% chance to be the No. 3 seed, a 66% chance to be the No. 4 seed and a 24% chance to fall out of the top four. The tournament field will be announced at 5:30 p.m. Sunday on ESPNU.
- While players and coaches will point to team success as being paramount, the matchup features plenty of star power. The Gophers have 14 NHL draft picks on their roster, while Michigan has 12. Two Gophers, Big Ten Player of the Year Knies and No. 3 overall draft pick Logan Cooley, are among the final 10 candidates for the Hobey Baker Award. So is Michigan forward Adam Fantilli, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year who leads the nation in scoring with 60 points (27 goals, 33 assists) and is expected to be the No. 2 overall pick in the 2023 NHL draft.
Fantilli, 6-2 and 195 pounds, has seven goals and three assists in Big Ten tournament play.
"He's just so darned talented,'' Motzko said. "We've got a couple of those guys, too.''
One of those is Knies, and he tipped his hat to Fantilli.
"He has a good motor; he doesn't stop moving his feet,'' Knies said. "He's a big player who uses his size to his advantage. Obviously skilled. So, he's kind of a whole package when it comes to a hockey player.''
Michigan likes to push the pace, as evidenced by its 20 goals scored in three Big Ten tournament games. The Gophers would like to limit the Wolverines' chances on the rush.
"They look like Michigan,'' Motzko said. "Last week, they jump out to a 3-0 lead [in the semifinal against Ohio State]. We've been seeing that for decades. They have an enormous amount of talent and play a great north-south game.''
The Gophers and Wolverines share the national lead at 4.11 goals per game. Minnesota has been stingier defensively, allowing 2.23 goals per game, while Michigan gives up 3.19. The Gophers have put up 18 goals in four games against goalie Erik Portillo.
"Side to side, he doesn't move too fast if you get the puck across the crease,'' Knies said. "We've got to get it on net. Taking shots from every angle — that's what he's given up to us and other teams.''
While seeking the Big Ten tournament title to go along with their regular-season crown, the Gophers stress the small details that can lead to postseason success.
"We're focusing on just building up, and obviously a Big Ten championship would be great,'' Faber said. "But it's about just playing our best hockey when it matters most, starting next week.''