When Bob Motzko took the pulse of the Gophers men's hockey team during Monday's practice, the coach came away impressed.
"We would've won the Stanley Cup on Monday," Motzko said.
Hyperbole aside, Motzko's point was made. Coming off a road sweep of Notre Dame by a pair of 3-0 scores, the Gophers have a lot more spring in their skates, especially when considering the combined 12-2 debacle of a series against Wisconsin the week before.
"That was a big weekend for us," Motzko said of the Notre Dame series. "What happened the week before, we needed to answer, we needed a response, and we got it."
With only three weeks left in the regular season, the importance of each weekend grows for the Gophers. Here are some things to watch down the stretch:
The battle for first place
The Gophers sit atop the Big Ten standings with a .722 winning percentage. Sixth-place Michigan State visits 3M Arena at Mariucci on Friday and Saturday, and Minnesota will try to end a four-game home losing streak in conference play.
"Bob talked to us and said this is one of the weekends where it's going to have to come from the players," sophomore defenseman Matt Staudacher said of his team's energy. "Our leadership group is stepping up this week. We've just got to make sure we're being crisp, hard, making good, strong plays in practice in gamelike scenarios."
On Thursday, though, a curveball was thrown into the race for the Big Ten regular-season title. Penn State announced that its Feb. 27-28 series against the Gophers has been canceled because of positive COVID-19 tests within the Nittany Lions program. That means the Gophers have only four regular-season games left: this weekend's series against the Spartans and the March 5-6 home series against third-place Michigan. Wisconsin, second in winning percentage at .667, has three series left: home against fourth-place Notre Dame and last-place Ohio State and a trip to Michigan State.
With the Gophers scheduled to play 22 Big Ten games and Wisconsin 24, the conference now will use winning percentage instead of total points to determine its standings. Even with the cancellation, the Gophers still control their regular-season destiny. If they win their final four games in non-shootout fashion, they will finish 17-5 in league play, or a .773 winning percentage. The best Wisconsin can do is a .750 winning percentage at 18-5-0-1 (actually six losses with its overtime loss). Wins in regulation and overtime are counted as wins for the purpose of breaking ties in the Big Ten standings, while shootout wins are not considered wins for tiebreaking purposes.
Why is winning the regular-season title important? That team receives a bye into the Big Ten tournament semifinals, while the other six teams would have to win three games in three days to claim the tourney crown. Avoiding a third game could be a benefit with the NCAA regionals being played the following week.
Options in the middle
Against Notre Dame, Motzko shuffled his lines, having the 6-4, 220-pound Jaxon Nelson centering Blake McLaughlin and Sammy Walker, while Scott Reedy, Ben Meyers and Jack Perbix centered the other three lines.
"Because of Notre Dame being a big, heavy team, we put big, heavy guys on all the lines. I thought it was effective," said Motzko, who saw Walker and McLaughlin each score on Friday, and Reedy set up Sampo Ranta and Brannon McManus for goals on Saturday.
McLaughlin liked the help from Nelson.
"Me and Walks are kind of smaller guys, and Nellie just provides that bigger, stronger presence," McLaughlin said. "He plays a heavier game. … He can throw some big hits and win a lot of corner battles."
Motzko said he doesn't plan to have Nelson on that line against Michigan State. He credited Perbix's development as a key to having flexibility on all four lines.
"Perbix has really taken a step anchoring that line [with Cullen Munson and Nate Burke or Mason Nevers], and now we can move Jaxon Nelson around a bit, and you're going to see him at a new spot this week.''