Don Lucia met with his players in the aftermath of the most recent round of criticism of the Gophers men’s hockey program to assure the bunch he was proud of them.

Despite outside negativity flaring up after three months of playing losing hockey, including a City Pages article last week that questioned the overall state of the program, Lucia has been impressed with how his young group works every day and their commitment to improve.

The Gophers responded by sweeping Michigan State last weekend to go above .500 for the first time this season and move into a first-place tie in the Big Ten standings. The Gophers (11-10, 6-2 Big Ten) visit border rival Wisconsin this weekend, eyeing back-to-back sweeps for the first time this season.

Junior assistant captain and defenseman Jake Bischoff said the team uses the off-ice critiques as motivation.

“It’s not good when anyone tries to talk about our program that way,” he said, “so we’re just going to try to keep working hard and do what we can.”

Last week’s events could be identified as a rallying point in attempt to turn the season around, but the Gophers arguably took that step in December. They came back from an 8-3 loss at Michigan on Dec. 11 for a 3-2 win over the Wolverines the next night.

Since then, the Gophers are 5-2. They opened the new year with a 3-2 victory over Conn­ecticut, then lost twice, but are now riding their longest winning streak, three games, into the Wisconsin series. Even the two losses, both in overtime to ranked opponents Harvard and Penn State, were confidence boosters.

“It’s just moving forward. We just got to try to keep winning games,” Lucia said. “We were in a similar situation last year about the end of January and we put together a pretty good run in February and finished the year on a pretty good note.

“Now we’re kind of lurking in a very similar position whether it is in the Big Ten or the national picture. We just need to win games, it’s the bottom line.”

The Big Ten picture is bright with the Gophers sharing first place with Michigan (14-3-4, 5-1-2-1). Another good weekend at Wisconsin would put the Gophers in a strong position entering the second half of conference play with three of the final five series at Mariucci Arena, including visits from top teams Michigan and Penn State.

The Gophers’ placement in the national picture isn’t as gloomy as some might expect despite their record. The Gophers are just two spots outside of the USCHO top 20.

More importantly, they are tied for 16th in the PairWise rankings, which indicate the 10 teams likely to get NCAA tournament at-large bids after the six automatic ones that go to the champions of conference tournaments.

The Gophers started 4-7, but had a tough nonconference schedule which has earned them the nation’s No. 1 strength-of-schedule ranking.

“That means we are where we want to be,” sophomore forward Leon Bristedt said about the Gophers’ rise to the top spot in the conference. Bristedt is tied for the team lead in points with 22 (11 goals, 11 assists).

“We want to be at No. 1 in the Big Ten. That’s one of our goals this season and now we have destiny in our own hands. It’s all up to us,” Bristedt said. “Of course there are going to be people criticizing you, but that’s a part of it. We’re just trying to get better as a team.”