Jason Gonzalez has covered an array of sports at all levels over the last six years. He learned ice hockey, however, long before — during the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah (his hometown). He got a close up look of legendary Gophers alum Herb Brooks and other Minnesota hockey greats. Jason is nearing two years with the Star Tribune.
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The Gophers can clinch the inaugural Big Ten title this weekend at Ohio State.
A Gophers’ victory and Wisconsin loss would get the job done on Friday. If Wisconsin wins, a Gophers’ sweep would secure the regular-season title on Saturday.
The Gophers know they’re in control of the outcome, but the standings haven’t been discussed in team meetings according coach Don Lucia. It’s more about the process at this point in the season, he said.
“The No. 1 goal is try to make sure we clinch one of the top two spots, and with a win Friday, that will happen. If we were to win Friday, we’ll go from there," Lucia said. "The guys aren’t blind; they can look at the standings in the locker room and see where we’re at.”
The players are paying attention. Forward Travis Boyd said the group continues to talk about the importance of being the first team to win a Big Ten hockey title.
“We’re trying to close out the Big Ten championship here, so the next two weekends are huge and they’re going to be tough, especially going on the road,” Boyd said. “Everyone wants to be the first team to win it, so definitely a lot of focus in the locker room right now to make sure we finished out what we started.”
• Effects of the NHL trade deadline trickled down to Mariucci Arena on Wednesday. Gophers freshman forward Hudson Fasching’s NHL draft rights were traded from the Los Angeles Kings to the Buffalo Sabres.
The Kings’ former fourth-round (118th overall) draft pick and minor-leaguer Nicolas Deslauriers were acquired by the Sabres in exchange for defenseman Brayden McNabb, forward Jonathan Parker and two second-round draft picks.
Fasching declined to speak with media at Wednesday’s Gophers access, but Tweeted “Excited to officially be a part of the @BuffaloSabres organization! #tradedeadline”
The swapping of Gophers' draft rights has become such regular practice that Lucia greeted sophomore defenseman Brady Skjei on Wednesday by asking if he had been traded yet. Last year, former Gopher Mark Alt had his rights traded and Keith Ballard had his rights traded twice before he left the Gophers.
The last former Gophers standout to have his rights traded was Nick Leddy, who was dealt from the Wild to the Chicago Blackhawks and later won a Stanley Cup in Chicago.
“It reinforces when you move beyond this level, you are an asset,” Lucia said. “[Fasching] has had a great year and sometimes you have to give up something to get something immediate. … Buffalo is rebuilding. … L.A. is a type of team that is probably trying to win a Cup this year.”
Fasching, a 6-2, 207-pound 18-year-old, is the Gophers’ third-leading scorer with 27 points (12 goals, 15 assists) on the first line. He is a two-time Big Ten Star of the week and is the conference’s second-best freshman scorer.
• The Gophers hit the road for the final two weeks of the Big Ten season. The team will leave early Thursday morning for Ohio State and a chance to practice at Value City Arena in Columbus.
None of the current Gophers have played at the venue and Lucia hopes the extra ice time will help his team feel more comfortable for Friday night’s series opener.
The early departure, however, will keep Lucia from seeing any of the Minnesota boys’ hockey state tournament at Xcel Energy Center this week.
Associate head coach Mike Guentzel will stay behind on Thursday and catch the Class 2A quarterfinal games, while recruiting coordinator Grant Potulny will be around for most of the high school action.
Up next: No. 1 Gophers at Ohio State (received votes), Friday at 6:30 p.m. CT and Saturday at 5:30 p.m. CT.
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Gophers coach Don Lucia:
Gophers forward Travis Boyd: