MINNEAPOLIS — One month ago, this scenario didn’t seem possible.
The Gophers men’s hockey team headed into a late-January series with Wisconsin on a not-so-positive note. Minnesota had just lost to Minnesota State and Minnesota Duluth the previous weekend and had plenty of work to do to get back into the NCAA tournament picture.
Now with three weeks to go in the regular season, the Gophers are in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten Conference — and are in good shape for a postseason berth. Despite an overtime loss Saturday to Penn State, Minnesota remains tied with Michigan for first in the conference.
Keep playing the way they have and the Gophers could earn their second straight Big Ten title.
"It’s all about you’ve got to win games. Everybody’s in a tight race where there’s four teams that can win the league, and that’s great," Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said. "It puts pressure on teams to perform. Obviously with the big picture for the end of the year, winning becomes important now because there’s a lot of teams clustered together.
"The nice thing is, we don’t have to look around and say, ‘Boy, if teams A, B and C win, that’ll really help us.’ We’ve just got to continue to try to win games."
That starts Thursday against Michigan State as the Gophers host a two-game series one day earlier than normal. The Spartans are one of those four teams Lucia alluded to in the crowded Big Ten standings. While the Gophers and Wolverines are tied in first with 27 points each, Michigan State and Penn State are not far behind — a third-place tie with 25 points.
As has been the case the last few weeks with series against Michigan and Penn State, this weekend is significant for Minnesota with regards to the Big Ten picture.
"Every game’s important from here on out," said Gophers senior Seth Ambroz. "We have the ability, I feel, to do special things here by the end of the year. Hopefully we can take it one game at a time and play the way we’re capable of, and I think we should be successful."
It’s just the second year of the six-team Big Ten conference, and one byproduct of a smaller league this season has been a tighter race at the finish. Outside of a young Wisconsin team — which has won just four games all year — and an injury-plagued Ohio State, the other four schools all have a shot to claim the conference crown.
There might not be as many natural rivalries as Minnesota experienced while playing in the WCHA, but the Gophers are finding out that there are a few other teams in the Big Ten that can give them a run for their money. With three points given for a victory in the Big Ten compared to two in the WCHA, one weekend can yield a big swing for teams. And each school plays each other for four games during the regular season, compared to the unbalanced schedule of the WCHA.
"Everyone gets an equal shot at everyone else," Ambroz said. "It’s a lot different than those first two years. Every point’s pretty critical now. You have to really look at it that way and get as many points as you can on the weekends."
Minnesota faced Michigan State for the first time this season back in early December, with the Gophers earning a 5-0 win and tying 3-3 in the series finale. Yet despite that eight-goal outburst in East Lansing a few months ago, Minnesota is expecting a different Spartans team defensively when Michigan State comes to Mariucci Arena.
In their last eight games, the Spartans have allowed a total of just 10 goals. That includes three shutouts — one each against Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin. MSU goalie Jake Hildebrand has four shutouts this year, tied with Gophers goalie Adam Wilcox and several others for the fourth-most in college hockey.
We know the ability of our team. When we play well, we know what we can do. We’ve been playing more like that this past month. For us, it’s a matter of how much we want it.
If Minnesota wants to keep its foot on the gas in the home stretch of the Big Ten race, getting past Hildebrand and the Spartans’ stingy defense will be the biggest obstacle.
"Hildebrand’s had a great career, and he’s having another outstanding season," Lucia said. "We know goals are going to be at a premium. . . . We’ve got to find a way to score some goals this weekend."
It’s hard to not look too far ahead with the finish line quickly approaching — especially for the Gophers’ seniors, who have just six regular-season games remaining in their careers. Yet if Minnesota continues to take care of business in the last three weeks against Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State, those seniors and the rest of the team could be rewarded with some more hardware.
"We know the ability of our team. When we play well, we know what we can do," Ambroz said. "We’ve been playing more like that this past month. For us, it’s a matter of how much we want it."