Anything short of another Big Ten hockey regular-season championship would be disappointment for the Gophers and their zealots. That title also could be a necessary step for Minnesota to reach the NCAA tournament.
In a weak year for the Big Ten, the Gophers need to skate through the conference season relatively unscathed to secure its expected spot in the NCAAs. A rocky conference season, combined with two-plus months of the five other middling Big Ten teams beating up on each other, could put No. 9-ranked Minnesota on the bubble of the 16-team tournament. National runners-up last season, the Gophers have made the past three, and 11 of the past 14, NCAA tournaments.
The first half of the season suggests the Gophers, who play Big Ten teams in nine of their final 10 regular-season series, shouldn’t have any trouble steamrolling the conference competition. They are the only ranked Big Ten team and were selected as the favorite to win the league back in September.
Michigan and Penn State, however, have received top-20 votes, and the Wolverines have won eight of their past 10 entering this weekend’s series against the Gophers in Ann Arbor, Mich. The Gophers, on the other hand, are 3-4-1 in their past eight games.
“We don’t have to win out, but we have to start winning games, that’s for sure,” senior captain Kyle Rau said. “We’re on the bubble for the PairWise [rankings] if you look at it right now, so it’s important to us to get on a roll and start going here.”
The PairWise rankings are based on a formula used to determine the NCAA field, and the Gophers are tied for 11th.
“Pressure to win out? … We’re not going to win every game,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “We have to start to be more consistent in our play and, hopefully, some guys that have not scored a lot will start to generate a little bit more offense for us.
“I’m just hoping now in the second half we can develop consistency. What our lines are going to look like; what our defensive pairs are going to look like. Because it just seems like whether it’s an illness or an injury or World Juniors … we just haven’t had a lot of weeks where we can say this is what our team is going to look like.”
After Rau saved the Gophers from back-to-back letdowns with Saturday night’s game-winning overtime goal against RIT, he told his teammates there is no need to panic. The team’s focus, Rau said, instead should be on exchanging quantity for quality when it comes to shots on goal. The Gophers’ first goal and game-winning goal against RIT were “dirty goals” the coaching staff has been emphasizing in practice.
Cleaning up play in the neutral zone is also an area of concern, and Rau is confident once this is addressed the team will be more productive.
“There won’t be a letdown at all [going into conference play],” Rau said. “We got a lot of time. It’s early January, we’re fine right now. Once it gets into February and March we gotta start playing and start almost peaking. … We’ve got a lot of room to grow and [the struggles have] been a good learning experience for us.”
A healthy lineup should help the Gophers improve their status over the next three months. They’ll be at full strength for only the third series of the season this weekend with Brady Skjei returning from an upper-body injury and Hudson Fasching, Ryan Collins and Leon Bristedt back from the World Junior Championship.
If everyone is able to play on Friday night, it would be only the sixth game that Lucia has had a complete roster.
Fasching and Skjei will play a significant role in the team’s attempt at winning back-to-back Big Ten titles. Skjei has missed six games and nearly two months with two different injuries this season, but Fasching is coming off a standout performance for the U.S. national junior team. He scored a goal, had two assists and was a plus-7 while playing a leadership role for the U.S. team at the World Junior Championship. He said the leadership experience helped him gain new perspective on how to be a leader at all levels.
The Gophers will take whatever they can get as the margin for error continues to shrink.
“We need to mature as a team and come together, and being able to win out in the Big Ten would be huge for us,” Fasching said. “The Big Ten might be weak, but I think teams are starting to come on. I think Michigan can be a team that can come on, and Michigan State is not a pushover. I think some other teams could also pick up some steam here.”