DETROIT – The noise of dancing loose change stopped as Don Lucia pulled his right hand of his pocket and flipped a coin into the air. The quick-witted reaction was the coach’s response to a question about how far the Gophers would need to advance in this weekend’s Big Ten tournament to extend their season.
He didn’t bother looking at the coin after making his point.
“I don’t know,” he said, after getting laughs from the crowd. “You just can’t … there are so many things that go on. All I know is that the more we win, the better our chances are enhanced.”
The No. 1-seeded Gophers play the first of two Big Ten semifinals Friday in Detroit against quarterfinal-winner Ohio State. A victory would increase the team’s low odds of claiming an at-large bid into the 16-team NCAA tournament. A loss Friday by the 13th-ranked Gophers could end their season, depending on how conference tournaments across the country shake out and affect the PairWise rankings. A Gophers victory Friday followed by a loss in Saturday’s final would make an NCAA berth, the coach might say, a coin flip. Two victories would claim a Big Ten title and the conference’s automatic bid.
“We’ve got a lot of desperate [Big Ten] teams,” Lucia said. “We’re probably the only team that still has a chance of making the tournament without winning, and that’s even iffy, depending on how many upsets there are in the conference playoffs. And the other five [Big Ten] teams know they have to win the thing to get in.
“You’re going to see that desperation [this weekend].”
Ohio State has been playing desperate, and well, since mid-February. The Buckeyes, who knocked the Gophers out of the Big Ten tournament in last season’s semifinal, are riding a four-game unbeaten streak and have scored 24 goals over the past four weekends.
The Gophers also face their challenge with history as a head wind. It’s been eight years since their last conference tournament title — the WCHAs in 2007, when they beat North Dakota. They haven’t even won a conference tournament game since 2010.
Despite all the success the current senior class has achieved over the past four years, including the four consecutive conference regular-season titles and two Frozen Four appearances, they’ve never won in a conference tournament.
“We obviously haven’t had much success in the conference tournament. That’s something we want to change,” senior assistant captain Seth Ambroz said. “We want to be able to put ourselves in a championship game in the conference tournament. We haven’t won a game as a senior class, and that’s kind of something that bothers us.”
The Gophers started the season ranked No. 1 with high expectations of returning to the Frozen Four. A midseason slump, however, made that goal seem like a long shot — and made this weekend a high-stress situation. In each of the past three years, the team had already secured an NCAA spot coming into the conference tournament. Last year, they lost in the first round and were still the No. 1 seed.
“It’s a little different for us. The last two [and three] years, we’ve been going into the playoffs as automatics. So it didn’t really matter how we did,” said Mike Reilly, a junior defenseman and the Gophers’ two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and Hobey Baker Award finalist. “It’s a little different approach this weekend.
“But I think when we’re playing kind of desperate, like we have been, we’ve been playing better, and that’s what we need to bring to the table.”
Adding to the pressure: The Gophers will have to win outside the comfort of their state borders. The WCHA Final Five was played annually at Xcel Energy Center, which was also the site of the first Big Ten hockey tournament. This year, however, it shifts to Detroit, offering Michigan and Michigan State some home-ice advantage.
Lucia likes the change, arguing that playing at home sometimes adds more pressure for the hometown team. Either way, it adds another layer of difficulty for the Gophers to overcome if they hope to buck the trend of conference tournament shortcomings.
“We haven’t been on the road for a playoff like this, but when it comes down to it, that’s what it is now,” Ambroz said. “The NCAA tournament, everything, you’re not going to be comfortable at home all the time. The best teams find ways to win on the road, and we’ve struggled at times this year. So we gotta be able to put forth our best effort and get the job done.”