MINNEAPOLIS — High above the ice at Mariucci Arena hang many maroon and gold banners with different years printed on to indicate various achievements in Minnesota’s hockey history. Fourteen of them indicate WCHA regular-season championships.
As the Gophers prepare to face Michigan this weekend, they’re hoping to add a banner of a different sort to the rafters: Big Ten champs.
Minnesota is about to conclude its first season in the newly formed six-team Big Ten Conference. With two games to play, the Gophers need just one win (three points) to clinch the conference’s first regular-season crown. Minnesota currently sits in first place with 42 points, while the Wisconsin Badgers are second with 37.
One victory this weekend in Ann Arbor and the Gophers can hoist another banner at Mariucci Arena.
"Obviously, it’s something that’s a goal when the year begins to try to put yourself in the position," said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. "You never know how the year’s going to unfold, but obviously we’ve had a great regular season and played very consistently from start to finish. Now we have to do our job and try to get a win on the road this weekend."
The Gophers nearly had the Big Ten title wrapped up last weekend in Columbus, Ohio, but let Saturday’s game against the Ohio State Buckeyes slip away late. Minnesota led 2-1 late in the third period before Ohio State scored with just under four minutes remaining to force overtime.
As they have for most of the year, the Gophers struggled in the ensuing shootout. Despite losing the shootout, Minnesota still was credited with a tie. Yet it meant that Lucia’s team would have to wait one more week for its chance to secure the initial Big Ten title.
"That was our goal last weekend was to finish the deal there, finish the job," said Gophers sophomore defenseman Brady Skjei. "We let it slip away there in the last couple minutes. We’re going into this weekend feeling the same way. We really want to get that Big Ten championship."
Regardless of what happens this weekend in Ann Arbor, Minnesota has already secured a bye in the first round of next weekend’s Big Ten tournament, which will take place at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The Gophers’ first game will be Friday, March 21, with the tournament championship taking place the following day.
Minnesota’s players aren’t allowing themselves to look ahead to the Big Ten tournament, let alone the NCAA tournament. Right now, the focus is on making history by becoming the Big Ten’s first regular-season champion.
"I think it’s a special accomplishment," said Minnesota forward Travis Boyd. "There’s only one first-time winner of the regular-season championship. It’d be good chance to go down in the history books and one of those things where you could look back at 10 years down the road and say, ‘I was on that team. I was a part of that.’"
The Gophers swept the Wolverines in their only other meeting this season, a two-game series at Mariucci Arena back in mid-February. Minnesota won by finals of 5-3 and 4-1. Since that weekend, Michigan has gone 3-2-1 while the Gophers are 3-0-1.
This weekend’s series will feature two of the better goalies in the Big Ten. Gophers sophomore Adam Wilcox has posted a 1.91 goals-against average this year — second-best in the conference — while Michigan’s Zach Nagelvoort is third with a 2.24 GAA. Minnesota has had a balanced offensive attack all season, but Kyle Rau and Sam Warning both rank in the top five among all Big Ten scorers.
Just looking at the Big Ten statistics seems odd, though, for a Gophers team that for so many years was entrenched in the WCHA. Playing teams like Penn State and Ohio State on a regular basis has taken some time to get used to. Even as the regular season comes to a close this weekend, the rivalries haven’t fully been formed among some of the conference’s teams.
But there’s no question that Big Ten hockey is here to stay. And since it isn’t going anywhere, the Gophers hope they can be the ones to take home the first Big Ten banner.
"It was pretty much what I expected it to be," Lucia said of the Big Ten’s first season. "The great thing about the Big Ten is you do get a true champion at the end of the year because you get to play everybody home and away. . . . The most important thing, we want to play well this weekend. That’s part of the big picture as you head into the playoffs."