Doug McLeod: Gophers hockey insider — the stretch drive begins

THE MATCHUP

Minnesota Golden Gophers (10-11-4, 7-6-3 Big Ten, 3rd) vs. Michigan Wolverines (9-10-6, 5-6-3 Big Ten, 4th)

3M Arena at Mariucci, Minneapolis, Friday/Saturday nights

BROADCAST

7 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Fox Sports North Plus both nights)

RECENT HISTORY

The Gophers split a bitterly contested Border Battle weekend with Wisconsin, winning 9-4 and losing 4-3 as a vortex of brutal winter cold descended on the Twin Cities.

Michigan beat No. 15 Penn State 5-1 Thursday then lost to the Nittany Lions 5-2 in a Big Ten Super Saturday game at Madison Square Garden.

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WHAT’S AT STAKE

Beginning this weekend, the playoff drive starts in earnest. With 10 games to go until the Big Ten tournament, the Golden Gophers sit in third place in the league standings. The Wolverines come to town in sole possession of the fourth and final home playoff berth for the best-of-three conference tournament’s first round.

The Gophers lead Michigan by three points while Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State are bunched up behind, just one point away from Michigan’s spot and four from the Gophers’. One slip can make a huge difference now.

SPECIAL TEAMS SHINE

Minnesota’s previously much-maligned power play has roared to life under new head coach BOB MOTZKO, who is personally involved with its resurgence. The formerly anemic man-advantage unit leads the Big Ten and is fifth in the nation after going 6-for-10 against Wisconsin last weekend. The power play comes in a on five-game scoring streak.

On the other end, the Gopher penalty killers have allowed NO power-play goals in seven of the last eight games.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

For the Maroon and Gold, the hot get hotter: TYLER SHEEHY was the highest-scoring player in the nation last weekend (eight points) and is on a five-game scoring streak.

REM PITLICK, meanwhile, leads the Big Ten in scoring and has tallied in seven straight.

BRENT GATES JR. leads the Big Ten in faceoffs: 62.7 percent.

And let’s not overlook BEN BRINKMAN. The freshman from Edina is the Big Ten co-leader in plus-minus stats at plus-12 (tied with Michigan State’s Taro Hirose).

Michigan head coach MEL PEARSON got a lot of mileage out of sophomore JOSH NORRIS, who was drafted in the first round by San Jose in 2017. However, Norris was injured recently and is thought to be out for the remainder of the season. Another Wolverine stalwart is healthy and operating right up to early predictions. Sophomore blueliner QUINN HUGHES is the sixth-highest scoring defenseman in the nation. The Vancouver Canucks draft pick was in everyone’s sights early and made the Big Ten Preseason Players to Watch list last fall.

TROPHY CONTENDERS

Five candidates for the Hobey Baker Award wear either Maroon and Gold or Maize and Blue. Gophers Pitlick, Sheehy and goalie MATT ROBSON are on the ballot as are Wolverines Hughes and Norris. The Hobey will be presented in Buffalo during the NCAA Frozen Four on April 12.

BROADCAST

Ben Clymer, Katie Emmer and I will call both games on Fox Sports North Plus. Stay in, stay warm, and whoop it up for the Gophers!

DOUG McLEOD is the five-time Emmy Award-winning play-by-play announcer for Fox Sports and a longtime voice of Division I and NHL hockey. This is his 22nd season calling Golden Gopher hockey games.