There is no need for the Gophers to remind one another what’s at stake this weekend at Mariucci Arena. Survival mode set in much earlier than expected this winter — over a month ago, in fact — and the pressure hasn’t let up.
Big Ten hockey’s preseason favorite is not only in danger of finishing as low as fourth place in the standings, but another bad weekend could eliminate any chance of Minnesota earning an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament. A strong weekend, however, could be enough for the Gophers senior class to win a fourth consecutive conference championship, and improve the team’s résumé just enough to be considered tournament material.
“We know the importance of this weekend. We kind of put ourselves in this spot,” Gophers senior captain Kyle Rau said. “We’re 14th in the PairWise, right now. It’s probably not good enough to get us in the [NCAA] tournament. … So it’s a huge weekend for us. We don’t want to have to be going into the Big Ten tournament having to win it.”
The PairWise rankings are based on a formula that the NCAA uses to select the tournament’s 16-team field. Any team sitting in the PairWise low teens on NCAA selection Sunday (March 21) is in jeopardy of getting bumped out of the field by a lower-ranked team that earns an automatic bid in a final-weekend conference tournament. Fourteenth, in other words, is not solid NCAA ground.
Standing in the way of a positive finish to an otherwise disappointing regular season is Penn State, one of four teams that could claim the Big Ten title this weekend. The Nittany Lions have the most ground to make up, trailing first-place Michigan State by three points in the conference race.
Penn State split with the Gophers three weeks ago and bumped Michigan out of the top spot last weekend with a sweep. The Wolverines and Gophers are tied for second with 33 points, one point behind the hot Spartans, who will play the Wolverines in a home-and-home final series.
A pair of wins by the Gophers won’t guarantee the defending Big Ten champs another title, but it would guarantee a top-two seed and a first-round bye in the conference tournament next week in Detroit.
“Like we were at the end of January, we’re in position to control what we can control and that’s winning games, and winning games takes care of everything,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said.
“The nice thing is you’re going into the last weekend with still a chance to win the league title, and for these [seniors] they’ve won three before. … Our seniors have had a tremendous impact for the program with what they’ve been able to accomplish [three regular-season conference titles, three NCAA tournament berths, two Frozen Four appearances] and you hope that they can go out on a real positive note.”
The Gophers’ midseason funk that produced a 4-8-2 stretch and 2-2-2 start in conference play overshadowed the team goal of returning to the Frozen Four. Guided by an impressive effort by the senior class over the past six weeks, the Gophers have climbed back into contention with an 8-3-1 record since late January. The team still needs to kick its inability to win back-to-back games, a habit the past three weeks.
“I think we’ve proven if we play how we’re capable of, I don’t think there’s anyone we can’t beat,” senior forward Travis Boyd said. “But on the flip side, if we play how we’ve been playing on the last couple of Saturdays, there’s definitely no one who cannot beat us.
“We definitely know what we need to do in order to make the NCAA tournament, and hopefully win a Big Ten championship, too.”
Senior assistant captain Ben Marshall is hoping a more relaxed approach will alleviate any pressure.
“Those things are in the back of your head, but you got to understand if we start … looking at the PairWise and start looking at standings and start using that for motivation for this weekend, I don’t think things will go well,” he said.
“You have to be relaxed and have to have a mental mind-set just like any other weekend. We need six points — not in the sense it’s six points do or die, but six points that what we expect out of ourselves.”
The reality, though, is that this weekend is “do or die” if the Gophers want to hang another Big Ten regular-season championship banner.