With the temperature threatening a March-like mid-40s outdoors, Gophers hockey players and coaches were wearing sunny dispositions during Wednesday’s practice inside 3M Arena at Mariucci.
And who could blame them, what with Minnesota fresh off a sweep of Wisconsin in Madison, riding a hot streak of five victories in six games and giving a slight glance toward the upcoming Big Ten and NCAA tournaments?
“For sure,” senior defenseman Steve Johnson said of the team’s outlook. “That was a good weekend. Anytime you get two wins at Wisco, with the Border Battle atmosphere and whatnot, that’s good for our team.”
“It was great,” junior captain Tyler Sheehy echoed. “Most importantly, we played two really good games.”
But for every mild winter day in Minnesota, there’s potential for a reality check quickly blowing in. For the ninth-ranked Gophers (18-13-1, 9-10-1-1 Big Ten), that comes in the form of a Friday night-Saturday afternoon visit from No. 6 Ohio State (19-7-4, 12-7-1), a stingy defensive squad that swept Minnesota in Columbus in early December. The Buckeyes are second in the Big Ten standings, eight points ahead of the fourth-place Gophers, and are coming off a 5-1 romp over No. 1 Notre Dame.
“We obviously have four really important [regular-season] games to go, starting Friday night with Ohio State, but guys seem to be playing a bit better right now,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “When your offensive guys score some goals and get on the score sheet, it lightens the load mentally for them.”
No Gophers had that mental load lightened more than Sheehy and senior forward Leon Bristedt, the team’s first- and fourth-leading scorers from 2016-17 whose production has decreased this season.
Sheehy had three goals and two assists against Wisconsin, keying the Friday victory with two third-period tallies. Bristedt had a three-point weekend, scoring his first goal since Dec. 29 — and his first non-empty-net goal since Nov. 4 — in Saturday’s game.
“The last few games, I felt more comfortable,” said Sheehy, a first-team All-America last season with 20 goals and 33 assists who has 12 goals and 11 assists this season. “The beginning of the year was a struggle for me. Second half has been a little bit better — maybe not getting the goals and assists, but I just felt that my game’s been improving as the season’s gone on.”
Bristedt, who has four goals and four assists this season after a 12-21—33 campaign in 2016-17, has impressed Lucia with his perseverance during the slump.
“When you watch the game and watch the tape, he’s working so hard every night,” the coach said. “He just hasn’t been rewarded. But he was rewarded last weekend.”
The Gophers might need their best scorers to be sharp again against Ohio State, which is giving up 2.17 goals per game (sixth nationally) and owns the nation’s best penalty kill (90.4 percent). If not, they’ll have to win with tight defense. “As much as we want to continue to score goals, this is the time of the year when you have to win some 2-1, 3-2 games,” Lucia said.
By winning this weekend, the Gophers could reap the benefits of home-ice advantage in the Big Ten quarterfinals and a better seeding in the NCAA tournament.
“March is such an exciting time, and obviously we’ve got to finish off February here,” sophomore defenseman Ryan Lindgren said, “but guys are getting really excited that we put ourselves in a good situation and we control our own destiny.”