Clock ticking on Golden Gophers’ postseason chances

Minnesota coach Don Lucia addresses Gophers players during a stoppage in their game against Minnesota State.

Courtesy: University of Minnesota Athletics

MINNEAPOLIS — After playing in the national championship last season, the University of Minnesota men’s hockey team entered this year ranked No. 1 in the country.

The Gophers are now unranked midway through the season.

It’s been quite a fall from grace for Minnesota, viewed as a college hockey powerhouse. The Gophers won back-to-back national championships in 2002 and 2003 and have been in the running for several others since then — including last year when they went to the Frozen Four, losing in the final. And as Minnesota entered the 2014-15 season ranked No. 1, many believed the Gophers would once again be a national power.

Yet with 14 regular-season games remaining, Minnesota finds itself outside of the USCHO.com top 20 poll for the first time since 2011. And in the all-important Pairwise rankings — which mimics the selection of the 16 NCAA tournament teams — the Gophers are 20th.

While there are still plenty of games to be played, Minnesota knows the clock is ticking if it indeed hopes to get back into the postseason race.

"If you start panicking, that’s not going to help," said Gophers senior defenseman Ben Marshall. "There’s a lot of games left. But at the same time, it’s got to happen this weekend."

Minnesota’s remaining schedule is both a help and a hindrance to the Gophers’ playoff hopes. On the positive side, head coach Don Lucia’s team has eight of its final 14 games at home at Mariucci Arena. And eight of the remaining games are against teams with losing records.

That second factor, however, is also something that could work against Minnesota. In order to climb up in the Pairwise, the Gophers will need wins against quality opponents — and there just aren’t many remaining on the schedule. Minnesota will face Michigan (currently 12th in the Pairwise) in mid-February, but the Wolverines are the only remaining team ahead of the Gophers in the Pairwise rankings.

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Minnesota had a chance to notch wins against top-10 opponents this past weekend in the North Star College Cup but lost to No. 1 Minnesota State on Friday before falling to seventh-ranked Minnesota Duluth on Saturday. Those missed opportunities could come back to haunt the Gophers when they’re trying to get back into the race late in the season.

"Obviously they’re disappointed, as we all are," Lucia said Wednesday. "For us, it’s about trying to build up our guys. It’s about trying to get them excited, trying to make sure that they understand that you’ve got to have a smile on your face when you come to the rink. It can’t be drudgery. You can’t worry about what’s happened. You’ve got to look ahead."

When looking at what ails the Gophers, it’s hard to fault the offense for the entirety of the struggles. Minnesota ranks 12th in the nation in goals per game (3.23), but it’s the inconsistency of those goals that frustrated Lucia last weekend. There have been games where the Gophers score five goals, and others where they score one or none. When they score three or more goals, they’re 11-2-1 this season. When scoring two or fewer goals, that record is 0-7-1.

Junior goalie Adam Wilcox has had his struggles this year, although not all the blame should be placed on him, either. Wilcox’s goals-against average of 2.51 ranks 40th in all of Division I college hockey. One year ago, he posted a GAA of 1.97, fourth-best in the nation. And his save percentage has dropped from .932 last year to .907 this season.

There have also been plenty of mental mistakes by the Gophers’ entire roster. Two weekends ago when Minnesota blew a 2-0 lead against Wisconsin, the players attributed mental lapses to the Badgers’ two third-period goals. The same was the case in the North Star College Cup.

"Mistakes happen all the time in a game. Hockey’s a game of mistakes," Skjei said. "But right now it seems like the mistakes we make, they’re amplified and they usually end up in goals. We’ve got to limit those and try to get back on track."

Lucia, in his 16th season at Minnesota, has tried to keep his players positive during the recent rough patch that has yielded an 11-9-2 overall record after starting the season 7-1-0. His teams have had just one losing season (2009-10) since he took over the program in 1999.

Because of the lofty expectations of the program, this year’s struggles have been magnified. The Gophers are looking for a way to snap their skid. Perhaps a matchup with the two-win Wisconsin Badgers could cure what ails Minnesota.

"Obviously we’re a great program with a lot of history here," Skjei said. "We should be a ranked team. But we don’t look at it that much at all. We just focus on the Big Ten schedule, especially this weekend in Madison."

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