The Big Ten hockey tournament could provide yet another opportunity for Minnesota and Wisconsin to bash away at each other. They’ve locked horns four times already this season and split the series at two wins apiece. The conference playoffs begin Thursday at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. The way the brackets are set up, a championship meeting between Goldie and Bucky on Saturday night is a distinct possibility.
A few things must happen first.
Minnesota is the tournament’s top seed. As such, it draws a first day bye. So does Wisconsin, seeded second. That leaves No. 3 Ohio State and No. 6 Michigan State to start the festivities Thursday afternoon. The Spartans gave Minnesota all it wanted and less in the regular-season finale Saturday at Mariucci Arena, a game that officially ended in a 1-1 overtime tie but which saw MSU gain a bonus point by winning the shootout, 2-1.
Thursday night, fourth-seeded Penn State takes on fifth-seed Michigan, the defending champion.
The winners of those games will test the league’s top two squads. The OSU-MSU winner meets Wisconsin on Friday afternoon; the PSU-Michigan victor draws Minnesota in the second semifinal Friday night. If Wisconsin and Minnesota win those games, which is by no means a foregone conclusion, it sets up a classic Minnesota-Wisconsin Border Battle title tilt Saturday night.
First, each has to do better on Friday than it did last Saturday.
The Badgers have been both inspiring and maddening in their return to respectability under first-year head coach Tony Granato. Their Lost Weekend last Friday and Saturday included some dismal end-of-season events that hopefully are not portentous.
First, they gave up goals by the bucket in the 5-1 and 3-1 losses to Ohio State. That includes being outscored 5-0 in the first periods. Second, the Cardinal and White ended the season on a lopsided losing jag, tacking a 6-0 loss to Penn State the previous week onto those two Kohl Center debacles. Third, the late slide has left Wisconsin with only one way into the NCAA field. Last weekend effectively ended their hopes for an at-large berth into the national tourney. Now, the only way the Badgers can gain a slot is by winning the Big Ten tournament, perhaps an ominous development for Minnesota.
Providing, of course, that Wisconsin and the Golden Gophers both make it to the conference championship.
Minnesota was efficient enough in dispatching Big Ten cellar-dweller Michigan State 4-0 Friday night. The next evening, however, the Spartans managed to score first, then rolled up their sleeves and contained the Gophers’ high octane offense for most of the remainder of the game. On Friday, MSU held some of Minnesota’s top scorers off the board all night but were done in by depth and balance. With this season’s Gophers, when an opponent slams the door there’s usually someone else coming at them through the window. On Saturday, the only scoreboard interloper was Jake Bischoff, who extended his career best point streak to ten.
MINNESOTA’S KEYS TO WINNING THE BIG TEN TOURNAMENT CHAMPIONSHIP
Get back to the formula that earned them a sixth consecutive conference championship (all four in the Big Ten plus two in the WCHA): scoring depth, special teams efficiency and resurgent goaltending from sophomore Eric Schierhorn.
Killer instinct: grab a lead, build on it and keep pounding away. When they do that, the Gophers are nearly impossible to beat. When they let up, they’re vulnerable.
Plug some big holes – again. It’s bad enough that talented Tommy Novak is out for the season and Mike Szmatula, who looked like an early return, had not returned as of last weekend. Now there’s another late-season casualty and it’s serious. Defenseman Ryan Lindgren crashed into the end boards on his back, legs first, Saturday night. He immediately rolled onto his stomach, pounding the ice in pain, and barely made it off the ice with two teammates supporting him.
University athletic officials revealed yesterday that Lindgren sustained a “lower leg injury.” He will undergo surgery late this week and is out for the season.
Lindgren has been Minnesota’s real defensive backbone. His loss for the post-season would present a significant challenge, if not a jarring pothole, on the road to the national championship.
Post-season honors pile up.
The Big Ten has handed out three top awards to Gopher players:
— Tyler Sheehy is the Big Ten Player of the Year and has been spotlighted as the league’s co-scoring champion along with Ohio State’s Mason Jobst
— Jake Bischoff has been honored with the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year Award
— Eric Schierhorn is, for the second straight season, the league’s Goaltender Of the Year
Now, if they can just grab that Big Ten tournament title and the NCAA championship plaque.
Our season-long coverage of Golden Gopher hockey is over for the season. On behalf of my partner Ben Clymer, thank you very much for watching. I’ll continue to chronicle important Gopher hockey events on this blog. Like you, Ben and I will be cheering for the Maroon and Gold all the way. See you on the tube again next fall!
DOUG McLEOD is a 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 21st season calling Golden Gopher hockey games.