MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota men’s hockey team is back in first place — but the Gophers are far from satisfied.
After what was a disappointing start to the Big Ten season, Minnesota had to climb its way back up the conference standings. With a sweep of Michigan this past weekend, the Gophers are now tied with the Wolverines for first in the Big Ten. Minnesota seems to be playing its best hockey of the year at a pretty good time in the season to do so.
With that in mind, the Gophers now have to avoid a letdown during the remaining eight regular-season games.
"That’s something we talked about at practice yesterday is that we haven’t done anything yet. Great, we clawed our way back into contention. But there’s eight games to go," Gophers coach Don Lucia said Wednesday. "Basically 40 percent of the Big Ten season is left to be played. You can’t take a step back. Obviously you’re not going to win every game, but we want to continue to play the way we’re playing."
The biggest change for Minnesota in recent weeks has been on the defensive end. During the first six Big Ten games the Gophers allowed an average of 3.0 goals per game. That has dropped to 2.5 goals a game over the last six contests. It might not seem like a drastic difference, but Minnesota’s players have acknowledge the willingness to do little things on defense has been there in the past three series.
On top of that, the Gophers are scoring at a higher rate. Minnesota has scored four or more goals in five of its last six games. That’s been thanks in large part to the Gophers’ five seniors — Kyle Rau, Seth Ambroz, Travis Boyd, Christian Isackson and Ben Marshall. The first three were Minnesota’s top three scorers during the recent six-game unbeaten streak, led by 10 points from Boyd. Ambroz has nine points in his last six games, while Rau has five goals and three assists in that same timeframe.
In fact, Minnesota’s senior class has scored more points in the last six games than any class in college hockey.
"I just think it got to a point where this is not the way we wanted our season to start off. We want to do what we can to salvage the rest of the year," Ambroz said. "So far, we’ve been having some success in the last six games. We’re playing the way we know how we can play. As a team, I think we’re finally realizing that. As seniors, we’ve got to be able to lead the way."
Ambroz alluded to having to salvage the Gophers’ season, which is the way it seemed just over a month ago. Minnesota was just 2-2-2 in its first six Big Ten games as it looked up at Michigan and Penn State in the standings. And while the games weren’t in conference play, the Gophers lost to in-state rivals Minnesota State and Minnesota Duluth in the North Star College Cup, seemingly the low point of the season.
That’s when Minnesota turned the corner. The Gophers beat Wisconsin and tied the Badgers in two games the following weekend and went on to sweep Ohio State and Michigan in back-to-back weekends. Finally, Lucia’s team started to fire on all cylinders for perhaps the first time this year.
"I think when we were struggling most, the urgency wasn’t quite there. The willingness to do those little things wasn’t quite there, whether it was blocking a shot or the ins and outs and smart plays, it just wasn’t there," Ambroz said. "That may have led to our struggles early on. Now those things are coming together and guys are having fun and are energetic on the bench and we’re having success that way."
Gophers junior Mike Reilly — who leads the nation in scoring by a defenseman — admits that the team has kept one eye on the standings throughout the season, adding that there’s a reminder in the locker room of where they’re at in the Big Ten. A few months ago, Minnesota didn’t like where it was in the standings. The same can’t be said now of the first-place Gophers.
As Minnesota found out the hard way, though, those standings can change in a hurry. It took plenty of energy for the Gophers to get to this point. Now the trick is sustaining this momentum for the final month.
"Obviously we went through a tough stretch. I think just not being complacent with our game right now, the last three weeks have gone I guess fairly well for us," Reilly said. "We’ve got to keep it going, not get complacent and not think we’re back where we should be, but in a way just keep pushing and don’t sit back but just keep going and get better."