Big Ten weekend actually a return to normalcy for Gophers hockey
MINNEAPOLIS -- This season was bound to offer new experiences to the Minnesota Gophers men's hockey team playing its first season in the new Big Ten Conference.
Who knew playing a Big Ten regular season game would be a return to a normal schedule for Minnesota? Yet, that's what the Gophers get this weekend after a hectic three-week stretch.
Minnesota, ranked No. 1 in the nation, hosts Michigan State this weekend at Mariucci Arena, the second set of games between the new conference foes this season in the home-and-home Big Ten Schedule. But after playing in four different arenas the past three weeks, a return to Mariucci for a regular Friday-Saturday series, even against a new conference opponent, seems like a return to normalcy.
"You mean we don't have anything special this weekend other than Big Ten games?" Gophers coach Don Lucia quipped this week. "Yeah, we're back to the routine now, that's fair to say."
Minnesota's hectic schedule has included a Sunday-Monday series at Penn State, the outdoor game at TCF Bank Stadium against Ohio State, one game against the Buckeyes at Mariucci Arena and then last weekend's North Star College Cup against other Minnesota schools, and former WCHA rivals, at the Xcel Energy Center.
"It was pretty crazy," Gophers junior forward Travis Boyd said. "There were definitely some times that it was a lot of new experiences, even for the guys that have been here for a couple years. It was fun. It was fun to go to Penn State, it was fun to have an outdoor game and it was fun to play last weekend in the North Star Cup. It was fun, but at the same time, it was a little hectic, a little crazy at times and just a little odd, a little uncomfortable."
During the stretch, Minnesota played four straight games in different arenas. Quite a difference from the usual Friday-Saturday, well-known schedule the Gophers have had for years in the WCHA.
Minnesota (18-2-4, 7-0-1 Big Ten) won the first five games during the unusual schedule before taking a tie last week against Minnesota-Duluth for schedule purposes. The Gophers won the North Star College Cup in a shootout.
"You're still in a routine but you're playing in different venues," Lucia said. "Someone brought up, we played four different venues in four games and that's unusual, certainly, in college hockey. I think the guys were able to keep focus and not get too caught up in the event, whether it was the outdoor game or the games at the Xcel Center, and played pretty well and found ways to win, or in Saturday's case tie and win in a shootout."
The change in arenas for Minnesota also means a change in the size of the ice sheet when the Gophers are away from the bigger, Olympic-sized rink at Mariucci Arena.
"We're all pretty comfortable playing on the big sheet," Boyd said. "At the same time, you do notice it out there for practice because we've been on the small sheet for the last couple weeks. A little bit of difference, but after we've been out there for a little bit, it's just back to normal."
Minnesota's "back to normal" is back to Big Ten play, where the Gophers are leading the conference. The return to games within the conference this weekend signifies nearly the midpoint of the Big Ten season, the first for the newly formed conference.
At Michigan State in December, Minnesota tied the first game and won the second. The only team the Gophers haven't faced yet in the Big Ten is Michigan. Minnesota has swept Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State.
"I think it's starting to ramp up now," Lucia said.
Now the Gophers can get back to a regular schedule, as odd as it sounds with Michigan State coming to town.
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