Big Ten hockey preview: Gophers look to break hearts
There has never been another No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament.
In the four years since the league formed, head coach Don Lucia’s Minnesota Gophers have won four Big Ten regular-season titles and one Big Ten tournament.
They’ll look to do it again this weekend, but first must await the winner of Thursday’s quarterfinal matchup between Penn State and Michigan.
But despite all of that, success in the Big Ten tournament hasn’t always translated to success when it really matters.
In the NCAA tournament.
The Gophers crashed out in the conference finals of last year’s tournament, tumbling all the way to No. 18 in the PairWise and missing the NCAA tournament.
Fast forward to 2017, and the Gophers aren’t just Big Ten champs, but they’re a bona fide threat in the NCAA tournament again.
With no NCAA axe looming over the heads, Minnesota is assured of at least one more game this season no matter how their semifinal turns out.
But while Minnesota’s season can’t end in Detroit, their league-mates are all fighting for their playoff lives.
The Gophers are the only team in the Big Ten with a 100 percent chance of making the NCAA tournament via an at-large bid, with No. 13 Penn State and No. 14 Ohio State sitting firmly on the bubble.
No. 18 Wisconsin — in prime position for an at-large bid just a week ago — likely needs the Big Ten’s auto-bid to advance, while No. 36 Michigan and No. 47 Michigan State are in even worse shape
Unfortunately for the rest of the conference, the Gophers are looking like the team to beat.
Sophomore forward Tyler Sheehy enters the tournament as the conference’s leading scorer with 52 points.
Sheehy was recently named the Big Ten Player of the Year and leads an offense that ranks fifth in the nation at a whopping 3.78 goals per game.
The only team with the scorers to run and gun with them — No. 2 seed Wisconsin — is reeling at the loss of goaltender Matt Jurusik.
Minnesota’s potential opponents in the semifinals — Penn State and Michigan — rank No. 26 and No. 43 in goals per game, respectively.
But the Gophers have vulnerabilities of their own.
Eric Schierhorn may be the Big Ten Goaltender of the Year, but his numbers have been less than inspiring.
His .906 save percentage ranks 46th in the nation, while his 2.60 goals-against average ranks 30th.
Minnesota will also be without a crucial piece on the back end.
The Gophers lost one of their most physical blueliners for the season during their tie with Michigan State in Saturday’s regular-season finale.
Lucia announced Monday that top-pairing defenseman Ryan Lindgren will undergo season-ending surgery to repair an undisclosed injury, but if the Gophers can keep scoring it may not matter.
Statistics courtesy of College Hockey Inc.
PairWire rankings courtesy of CollegeHockeyNews.com, updated March 15, 2017