First on the Gophers’ to-do list is win the Big Ten’s inaugural regular-season hockey championship. A win or two points in the standings this weekend at Michigan will check off goal No. 1.
“Right now that is our focus, winning the regular-season championship. And after that, we’ll move on and try to win the Big Ten tournament championship. And after that, the [NCAA] regionals. And hopefully we can keep going,” Gophers forward Travis Boyd said. “The playoff mentality really kicked in last week.”
With that playoff mentality is the intensified feeling of defeat. The Gophers were four minutes from clinching the Big Ten title last Saturday at Ohio State, yet left Columbus trophy-less and feeling a sense of urgency.
The Buckeyes tied the score 2-2 late in the third period and won a shootout to claim the extra point in the standings. The Gophers settled for four points with a victory and tie on the road and sit five points ahead of second-place Wisconsin.
The Badgers and Gophers each clinched first-round byes in next weekend’s Big Ten tournament at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. This week, they battle for the league’s first regular-season championship trophy.
Motivation won’t be a problem for the Gophers. Boyd said last week’s tie hurt more than any other this season knowing what was at stake, but the group learned what it takes to win at this time of the season.
“That was our goal last week — to finish the deal there, to finish the job, but we let it slip away in the third period and last couple minutes,” Gophers defenseman Brady Skjei said. “We’re going into this weekend feeling the same way and really want to get that Big Ten championship.”
Gophers coach Don Lucia expected a tight finish with only six teams and 20 games in the new hockey conference. Two road series to close out the Gophers’ regular season added to the challenge. Ohio State hasn’t been swept at home this season, and Michigan has only two losses at Yost Arena this year.
Michigan is also fighting for an NCAA tournament berth. The Wolverines are tied for 14th in the PairWise rankings, which is used to select the 16-team NCAA tournament field. A poor showing against the Gophers and a quick exit from the Big Ten tournament could keep them out of the postseason for back-to-back seasons. They had qualified for 22 in a row before last year’s letdown.
The Gophers’ No. 1 PairWise ranking has their tournament spot secured.
“I think there is a sense of urgency all year long,” Lucia said. “When the year began and we looked at our schedule, we knew that the last four would be difficult back-to-back weekends and come down to the weekend at Michigan. … That’s what happened and that’s what we expected.”
Lucia’s focus is about “the process,” not the Big Ten standings. He was pleased with his team’s four points at Ohio State and doesn’t want the Gophers to feel any unnecessary pressure this weekend in Ann Arbor. The pressure will start when it’s single elimination and go home, he said.
The Gophers have two weeks until they start considering the end and are using this stretch to learn what it takes to win in challenging environments. This weekend at Yost Arena might be the Gophers’ biggest challenge. Lucia said there is not a tougher place to play in college hockey.
It’ll be a new venue for most of the current Gophers. Boyd, Skjei and Hudson Fasching have experienced the high energy of the old arena while playing for the U.S. National Team Developmental Program in Ann Arbor.
“Michigan is going to be a good time. We didn’t have the weekend we wanted with Ohio State, so there is definitely a sense of urgency,” Fasching said. “[The standings] are in the back of our minds and we have the [series] trophy with Michigan on the line, so it’s a big weekend for us.”