The Gophers men’s hockey team hasn’t been ranked for a month and is three games under .500 — but as of Friday it’s 0-0 and tied for first place.
The Big Ten season has arrived just in time.
“No wins and losses. That’s something we can use right now,” junior forward Hudson Fasching said. “Take a fresh start and start by making sure we’re developing good habits and going forward.”
That optimism entering the conference opener against Ohio State on Friday night comes with the Gophers (4-7) having lost three in a row to in-state rivals. The Gophers likely will need to win a third consecutive regular-season Big Ten title and second straight conference tournament to redeem their season. The Buckeyes come to Mariucci Arena with a league-worst 3-9 record and were picked by conference coaches to finish fifth.
The Big Ten has gone through growing pains since forming in 2013-14 and has earned only three NCAA tournament bids, two of which were automatic, in the first two seasons. Last March, the Gophers were the only member to make the 16-team field.
Poor nonconference showings have hurt the Big Ten’s credibility, a story line unlikely to change. The Big Ten has a 26-32 nonconference record and is 1-14-1 vs. NCHC teams; the Gophers have already been swept by Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State from the NCHC. The only Big Ten teams with winning records are Penn State (8-2-3) and Michigan (7-2-2).
“I think [the conference] is getting better every year,” junior forward and captain Justin Kloos said. “Maybe it’s a little down compared to other conferences, but we still have some good teams and have to play well every night to win. There are no gimmes in the Big Ten.
“Obviously we’re a little frustrated and down about how the season started. We talked about how we can’t do anything about it now and can’t get too stressed and too worried about our past. We’re looking forward to the opportunity to get started in the Big Ten. We’re all starting fresh. … And we’re not a team that’s going to quit any time soon and not going to coast and not going to accept that maybe this isn’t our year. We’re going to battle.”
The Gophers have lost three consecutive games at home.
“This weekend is huge for us,” Fasching said. “If this is truly a fresh start, our true colors will be painted on the wall after this game. It will show whether we have that fresh start we want or continue down that [disappointing] road.”
The Gophers have 10 freshmen on the roster, with most expected to play a regular role. Four have scored a goal, six have points, and freshman goalie Eric Schierhorn has been consistent in the net, but the production still hasn’t been enough.
The five junior forwards have been expected to carry the offensive load, but they have only 10 goals in 11 games. Fasching has four, Kloos three, and Vinni Lettieri, Taylor Cammarata and Connor Reilly have only one each.
The defense has been led by juniors Michael Brodzinski (two goals, six assists) and Jake Bischoff (two goals, three assists) but consistently struggles to get the puck out of the defensive zone and help establish regular offensive zone time.
All these problems have led to a 2-5 record at Mariucci Arena.
“We’ve been so good at home over the years. To be sitting with the home record we have right now is obviously disappointing,” coach Don Lucia said. “It starts by winning at home, and that’s something we’ve done a lot of in the last couple years in the Big Ten and hopefully that will continue this weekend.
“We just have to get some other guys going, especially our junior class … A lot is placed on their shoulders right now and some of them need to score.”
The Gophers are 28-8-6 for a .775 winning percentage in 40 Big Ten regular-season games. At home they are 17-1-2 in the conference. These numbers give the freshman class hope that they can still salvage their expectations of what the first year of college hockey would be like.
“This weekend is going to be good to get back to Gopher hockey and, with the conference play, it’s kind of a clean slate,” said freshman forward Tyler Sheehy, who has three goals and four assists.
“[Gophers hockey is] a tradition of winning and a tradition of excellence, as well. There’s high expectations, and I think that’s something you try to live up to.”