A little more than a week ago, the Gophers men's hockey team was licking its wounds after being swept at home by Michigan.
And even more concerning: Minnesota's lackluster effort against the Wolverines dropped it to No. 15 in the PairWise Rankings, meaning the Gophers were flirting with missing the NCAA tournament, with the Frozen Four set to be played in their backyard rink, Xcel Energy Center.
Funny how sweeping an opponent — even a last-place foe such as Michigan State, whom the Gophers dispatched last weekend — can improve a team's fortunes.
The Gophers are up to No. 9 in the PairWise — the formula that mimics the method the NCAA uses to fill its 16-team tournament field — and have a chance to move up further with top-ranked Notre Dame visiting 3M Arena at Mariucci on Friday and Saturday.
"The opportunity is huge," Gophers captain Tyler Sheehy said. "We jumped up in the PairWise last week and then again when Mankato won [against Minnesota Duluth on Tuesday]. That's big."
But to take full advantage of that opportunity, the Gophers (15-12-1, 6-9-1-1 Big Ten) must beat Notre Dame (19-4-1, 13-1), which had its 16-game winning streak end Sunday in a 5-0 loss to Wisconsin at Chicago's United Center. The Fighting Irish swept Minnesota 1-0 and 5-2 on Thanksgiving weekend in South Bend, Ind.
"Either they're going to be real ornery because they lost the first one in 17, or maybe they're going to feel a little bit vulnerable right now," Gophers associate head coach Mike Guentzel said Wednesday, filling media duties in place of head coach Don Lucia, who was battling flu-like symptoms. "Who knows? It still comes down to how we play."
The Gophers' task against the defensive-minded Irish, whose goalie, sophomore Cale Morris, leads the nation with a .951 save percentage, is getting to the gritty areas to score. Minnesota outshot Notre Dame 44-23 in the first meeting and 42-35 in the second but had only two goals all weekend.
"It's gonna be more than just getting shots on net," Gophers junior forward Jack Ramsey said. "We have to get in the paint and finish on those shots and rebounds. … If it's a 2-1 game or a 5-4 game, I don't think it matters to me personally. We just need to get those W's."
Added junior forward Brent Gates Jr., a Grand Rapids, Mich., native who originally committed to Notre Dame before switching to Minnesota: "It's nice to have them in our building now and get another crack at them."
A better start would help the Gophers, too. In their last home series against the Wolverines, they gave up a goals 14 seconds into the opener and 1:13 into the series finale. Big Ten opponents have scored first against the Gophers in eight of the past 10 games.
"If we fall behind, the way they defend, it'll be difficult," Guentzel said of the Irish. "We learned a valuable lesson against Michigan. … You can't chase games against any opponent."
The Gophers will try to draw confidence from the last time a No. 1-ranked team came into Mariucci. On Jan. 7, Minnesota beat St. Cloud State 2-0 in a tight, fast-paced contest that was the Gophers' best performance of the season. A repeat of that against Notre Dame would help their all-important PairWise standing, which Guentzel acknowledges he peeks from time to time.
"Oh, just with one eye," he said. "It's so turbulent at times. … But the best thing we can do now is win games — and certainly win our home games."