A lot on the line as Gophers host Bemidji State

MINNEAPOLIS — After being swept last weekend in Denver, the Minnesota Gophers men’s hockey team had to stew in the disappointment while enduring the tough flight home.

The Gophers were frustrated. Not just in suffering their first regular season sweep since Dec. 3-4 of last season, but also in the way it happened. In the Saturday finale, the Pioneers scored a power-play goal with 1 minute, 26 seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime. The overtime winner came just 17 seconds into the extra sessions.

“It was a very salty wound,” Minnesota sophomore Nate Schmidt said. “It was about the worst nightmare came true. The flight home wasn’t good. You could just tell, even Monday, the guys were still a little bitter about it. But it’s turning into a motivational factor for this weekend. We can’t have that happen. It’s got to be something we build off of instead of something we linger on.”

Last weekend’s sweep by surging Denver also put the Gophers in a precarious position as they Bemidji State this weekend, a team on a 10-4-2 roll since the beginning of December. Minnesota will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 2002 National Championship team on Saturday.

Minnesota still leads the WCHA with 30 points, but the lead has dwindled to one point over Minnesota Duluth and two points over the Pioneers. The Gophers entered last weekend with three straight wins and were ranked No. 2 in the nation. The sweep dropped them to No. 7 overall. And more importantly, Minnesota has slipped to 14th in the Pairwise rankings, a determining factor to making the NCAA tournament.

Once ranked No. 1 in the nation, some believe Minnesota is fighting for the postseason with just three weekends left in the regular season. The Gophers were ranked No. 2 for two weeks this season, but is outside of the top five for the first time since Oct. 24 and might need to win the WCHA for the automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.

“It’s kind of a weird situation, I guess,” Minnesota assistant captain Zach Budish said. “That goes back to our non-conference. We didn’t do too well in our non-conference games and our conference as a whole, didn’t do too hot either. That’s kind of how it works and we’re fighting to not only win the league but also get in the NCAA tournament.”

The Gophers (19-11-1, 15-7-0 WCHA) went just 4-4-1 in their non-conference portion of their schedule. The rest of the WCHA didn’t have much luck either, hurting all conference teams’ standings in the Pairwise rankings. The WCHA is usually considered one of the top conferences in college hockey, but just three teams are in the top 14 in the Pairwise.

Ferris State is ranked No. 1 in the country and owns the top spot in the Pairwise. While the top six ranked teams in the country comprise the top six in the Pairwise, seventh-ranked Minnesota slips all the way to No. 14.

“You look at it after every weekend pretty much,” Budish said of keeping an eye on the Pairwise rankings. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say we were a little bit concerned about that too. But, we’ve just got to take it one week at a time. We’ve got a good, hot Bemidji team coming here Friday. They’re playing good hockey right now and its four big points on the line this weekend.”

The Gophers know the importance of the final three weekends and know they have a tough weekend with Bemidji State on tap, but coach Don Lucia isn’t putting any extra emphasis on this weekend.

“I think you feel a sense of urgency all along, nothing changes,” Lucia said. “The bottom line is, like I told our guys, is, ‘Hey, there’s three weeks to go and we’re in first and in a good situation in a lot of different areas. When you’re at the end, you’d take where we are in a heartbeat and now we just have to finish. We have to finish the last three weeks of the regular season like everybody does. Everybody’s fighting for points right now.”

The Gophers could earn points by continuing its success against in-state teams. Minnesota is 7-1 against fellow Minnesota teams this season, the only loss coming against St. Cloud State on Nov. 18.

“That was a big emphasis coming into the year,” Budish said. “We had to re-establish ourselves in the state of Minnesota and we’ve done a pretty good job of that so far.

“That was a big emphasis coming into the year, start with beating teams within our own state and then within our conference and then nationally.”

And if the Gophers keep up the success against in-state teams this weekend, it will help them get the chance to do so nationally.”

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