Doug McLeod’s hockey insider: Gophers look to sweep with NCAA tourney looming

The Matchup

Golden Gophers (13-14-4) vs. No. 11/12 Arizona State Sun Devils (21-10-1) at 3M Arena at Mariucci, Minneapolis, Friday/Saturday

Broadcasts

FOX Sports North on Friday, FOX Sports North Plus on Saturday, 7 p.m. CST both nights

More Gophers coverage

What’s at stake: NCAA playoffs – or not

Here’s the scenario: a heritage college hockey power hits the final weekend of the regular season against an upstart Division I independent. One school is nationally ranked, the other not even close. One is high up in the Pairwise ratings, the other well down in the pack. One is in good shape for an NCAA playoff berth, the other desperate.

Now here’s the kicker: the feisty independent – the school many in the northern U.S. can’t even believe has a team – is the nationally ranked, comfy-in-the-Pairwise Arizona State Sun Devils.

The other is the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

It’s about to get even stranger. For Minnesota to have a prayer of an invitation to the NCAA tournament, the Golden Gophers pretty much have to sweep ASU this weekend at 3M Arena at Mariucci. To be guaranteed an invitation to the dance, they must win the Big Ten tournament. Yes, the one that includes two other teams that no one in Minnesota likes to admit are real hockey powers: Ohio State and Penn State. Failing that, even an at-large berth to the NCAA Regionals is a dim hope.

As to the team from Tempe, ASU head coach Greg Powers is wary of the possibilities, and rightfully so. As he told The Arizona Republic, “We don’t trust the math. Last year … there was less than a one percent chance (Minnesota) could miss the postseason and they missed.”

Thank you, Penn State. You’ll recall that the Nittany Lions beat then-No. 8 ranked Minnesota in the last two games of the regular season and then, a week later, upset the Gophers again in the Big Ten tournament.

This spring, the Gophers have guaranteed themselves home ice in the conference tournament. The best-of-three first round begins next weekend. Anything beyond that is anyone’s guess. The six conference champions earn automatic berths into the NCAAs. Everyone else’s participation depends largely on the Pairwise. Minnesota – a game below .500 and 22nd in the Pairwise – faces a serious challenge. Arizona State – 21-10-1, with victories against several ranked teams – is 8th in the Pairwise after only its third season playing a full NCAA schedule. The figuring in Arizona, at least, is that only being swept at Minnesota this weekend (the Gophers have no home sweeps this season) and several unfortunate results elsewhere can keep the Sun Devils out of the NCAA tourney.

There’s one additional complication to ASU’s long ride this season: it hasn’t exactly been frantic lately. Thanks to a front-loaded schedule, the Sun Devils have had three weeks off since January. After this weekend, since they have no conference tournament ahead of them, they won’t play any other games until a possible NCAA set beginning March 29. Powers already has plans for filling that gap with scrimmages against the U.S. National U18 team or a Canadian college.

Players to watch

Minnesota goalie Mat Robson is the Big Ten’s third star this week. He led the conference in save percentage (.931) and goals-against average (2.02) last weekend in the Gophers’ home split against Notre Dame.

The line of Rem Pitlick, Tyler Sheehy and Brent Gates Jr., has combined for an even 100 points and has played every game. Brannon McManus has chipped in a dozen goals. Outside of those four, no other Gopher has hit double digits in scoring.

Arizona State is paced by the young man whose name is a brand of scotch and whose shot is prodigious: Johnny Walker. The sophomore leads the nation in goals-per-game with 0.74 (23 goals in 31 games).

Also, watch out for sophomore Demetrios Koumontzis, who played his prep hockey at Edina but opted for ASU despite interest from Minnesota. Koumontzis is the NCAA’s second star of the week after turning in a six-point weekend against American International.

The Sun Devils have received solid goaltending from junior Joey Daccord, who ranks sixth in the nation with a .930 save percentage.

Special teams matchup

Who would have thought that we would be talking in March about how good Minnesota’s power play has been all year? It’s reality this season. With two strong units,

the Gophers are 8th in the nation at 24.4 percent.

Against that, ASU ices a stingy penalty kill, which shuts down enemy power plays at a rate of 86.4 percent, the NCAA’s ninth best.

Final word

These will be our last Gopher hockey broadcasts of the season on Fox Sports North.

It has been a pleasure and an honor to cover the Maroon and Gold again and to work with terrific partners like Ben and Katie as well as our world-class production crew.

Thank you for another wonderful season.

Broadcast

Ben Clymer, Katie Emmer and I will call both games.

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.