Big Ten hockey has taken plenty of criticism from college hockey purists this season. None of the six teams are shoo-ins for the NCAA tournament and only two are ranked in the USCHO top 20, however because the teams have beaten one another up throughout conference play, it has set up what should be an exciting finish to the regular season.
Four teams are still in contention for a Big Ten regular-season title, including the defending champion Gophers. Michigan State controls its own fate, two wins would give the Spartans the championship, while Michigan, Minnesota and Penn State all need to win and need help from one another to finish on top of the standings.
"We knew the league would be much more compressed this year," Gophers coach Don Lucia said. "Michigan State has made a great run here in the second half. [Goaltender Jake] Hildebrand has been outstanding. Obviously we've seen the strides Penn State has made during the course of the season.
"[This weekend] will be a great test. I'm looking forward to it. I think our kids have answered the bell most of the nights."
That may be true for the series opener during the Gophers' turnaround effort over the last six weeks. They're 6-0 in the first game of the weekend, but 2-3-1 in the second game. They have to answer the bell both nights this weekend if they hope to win another Big Ten title. Anything short of two wins wouldn't get the job done.
Michigan and Michigan State face off in a home-and-home series that starts in East Lansing on Friday night. The series shifts to Ann Arbor on Saturday evening and should be done by the time the Gophers and Penn State drop the puck on their series finale. Both Michigan-Michigan State games can be seen on Fox Sports Detroit and BTN2Go.
• Mariucci Arena will take a moment before Friday night's game to honor Lucia for taking over as the program's all-time winningest coach. Win No. 391 came on the road last weekend at Ohio State and pushed Lucia past longtime coach Doug Woog. Lucia, in his 16th season leading the Gophers, has a record of 391-201-68. His 28-year career record is 670-356-97.
• Friday night's game is a late addition to the TV schedule and could be difficult to find on the air for some fans. The American Sports Network picked up the game and will broadcast it on getTV channel 23.2. For Comcast digital cable customers in the Twin Cities, look for the game on channels 212 or 251. For satellite TV subscribers, your best bet is to watch it through live stream on BTN2Go.
• With Penn State in town this weekend, we took a look at college hockey expansion and how the Nittany Lions are the footprint for expansion hopes. Arizona State followed Penn State's prompt, so who will be next? Read about who might be considering varsity men's hockey and join the debate about if all this expansion is good for the sport.
• Series Preview: No. 15 Gophers vs. Penn State
7:05 p.m. on Friday and Saturday at Mariucci Arena.
TV/live stream/radio: getTV (channel 23.2 and Comcast digital channels 212 or 251 in the Twin Cities) on Friday and FSN Plus on Saturday; BTN2Go both nights; 1500-AM both nights.
Minnesota (19-12-3, 10-5-3 Big Ten): The Gophers aren’t overlooking the opportunity to win a fourth consecutive conference championship this weekend, but their biggest concern is improving their status for an NCAA tournament berth. Entering the final weekend of the regular season, they’re on the bubble. Two wins against Penn State would go a long way to help the Gophers’ chances of earning an at-large bid into the postseason; otherwise a Big Ten tournament title and its automatic bid could be required to continue their season. Even one win might not be enough to improve their standing and that’s all they’ve been good for over the last three weeks, settling for a split each time out. The senior leadership is unsure why they’ve been unable to put together back-to-back wins, but there’s no more room for sluggish efforts.
For more on Penn State and its Big Ten title hopes, read the full series preview.
• Gophers' Friday lines
Forwards (left wing, center, right wing)
Leon Bristedt, Kyle Rau, Hudson Fasching
Sam Warning, Travis Boyd, Seth Ambroz
Taylor Cammarata, Justin Kloos, Vinni Lettieri
A.J. Michaelson, Christian Isackson, Jack Glover
Defensemen (left, right)
Brady Skjei, Ryan Collins
Mike Reilly, Jake Bischoff
Ben Marshall, Michael Brodzinski
Adam Wilcox, Nick Lehr, Ryan Coyne