When Joyce Lucia wondered what went wrong for the Gophers men’s hockey team last weekend, her husband offered a theory.
“Too many attaboys,” Don Lucia said, explaining that the compliments earned during a five-game winning streak may have caused his players to ease up a bit.
The Gophers coach noted the sentiment was quite the opposite after a dismal showing at the North Star College Cup. With two lackluster performances, his team squandered its final opportunity to earn nonconference victories, making it that much harder to position themselves for an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament.
Last weekend’s losses to No. 19 Minnesota State Mankato and Bemidji State leave the Gophers little margin for error over the final 10 regular-season games.
Those losses dropped the Gophers out of the national polls and left them at No. 20 in the PairWise Rankings, which mimic the formula used to fill out the 16-team NCAA tournament field. If they do not win the Big Ten tournament to secure an automatic NCAA berth, they need to secure one of the 10 at-large bids available.
“We had made some strides, but last weekend was a setback for us,” said Lucia, whose team is tied with Michigan atop the Big Ten midway through the conference schedule.
“The nonconference slate is over, and we didn’t do well enough [5-10]. That’s put us in a hole, but there’s nothing we can do about it now. We’ve got 10 games left in the Big Ten, and we’ve got to win as many as we possibly can.”
The Gophers can take some inspiration from last year. After bombing at the North Star Cup, the Gophers recovered to win 10 of their final 14 games and the Big Ten regular-season title, plus the league tournament.
To repeat that feat, Lucia said, the Gophers must get back to playing disciplined, precise hockey with every player contributing. At their best, they function as a well-balanced collective with two lines that score consistently and two that reliably chip in. Last weekend, only Justin Kloos and Connor Reilly scored and the offense dried up when it failed to move smoothly out of its zone and maintain puck control.
To have a good chance to win, the Gophers must score at least three goals; they are 13-4 when netting three or more and 0-8 when scoring two or fewer. Third-line center Vinni Lettieri said his line recognizes its importance and needs to be more assertive and consistent.
“Players like Kloos, [Hudson] Fasching, Leon [Bristedt], they’ve got to keep doing what they’re doing,” Lettieri said. “And the bottom two lines have to pick up their weight and help the team. When we contribute, we’re a different team. We’re a lot better.
“Without the full four lines and all the ‘D’ and goalies, we’re not going to go anywhere. ”
Earlier this week, the Gophers still lamented the poor play at the North Star Cup that gave them a five-game losing streak against in-state rivals. They get another chance this weekend to chase meaningful victories, with Penn State six points behind them in the Big Ten standings.
“We have an opportunity to separate ourselves [in the standings] this weekend,” Lucia said.