The two titans of Big Ten hockey have spent all season battling for a chance to win the regular-season crown. Fittingly, that fight may come down to this weekend.
Minnesota (11-3 Big Ten, 16-13 overall) hosts No. 6 Michigan on Thursday night in the first game of a weekend series that could shake up the Big Ten and national standings.
The Gophers are in the driver’s seat in the conference, with 33 points to the Wolverines’ 32, but they are on the outside looking in on the race to the NCAA Tournament. Ranked at No. 16 in the PairWise, Minnesota needs a late push or a Big Ten Tournament title for a chance to play in April.
For Michigan (9-2-3, 19-4-5), the matchup is no less important. The Wolverines are desperate for a chance to return to the postseason, but a late collapse could still derail those hopes. A sweep against Minnesota would lock up a NCAA Tournament spot, while a split would also put the team in a strong position.
“Minnesota is a huge weekend for us,” said sophomore forward Cutler Martin. “It is going to be one of those miracle weekends where you either come away with the victories, and it defines our season, or we don’t.
“We know that this is our season. This is something that we have to be ready for.”
The two teams split an early conference series at Yost Ice Arena. Michigan dominated the possession in the first game, coasting to an 8-3 win, but fell 3-2 the next night.
“We know how important these games are,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “You don’t have to turn it into the Stanley Cup, but we’re trying to play better every week. We think we can play better, and a series like this should bring out the best in our team.”
The Wolverines are riding a tide of historic scoring and improved goaltending toward a strong regular-season finish. The top line of junior forwards Tyler Motte and JT Compher and freshman forward Kyle Connor leads the nation in nearly every offensive category. Motte has scored the opening goal in three consecutive games as part of a 12-game goal streak — the longest in the Berenson era.
It has been a down year for the Gophers. After opening the season 4-7 in non-conference play, the perennial powerhouse has looked like at contender a times, and much less so at others. Freshman netminder Eric Schierhorn has been strong in goal, but Minnesota’s offense has never quite materialized.
Michigan, on the other hand, hasn’t lost a game in regulation since its last game against Minnesota on Dec. 12, and has shored up problems in net with the improved play of senior goaltender Steve Racine.
The Wolverines’ defense underwent a third retooling before the matchup against Ferris State last weekend. Berenson has consistently pointed to team defense as the biggest remaining concern.
Martin moved to forward while sophomore defenseman Sam Piazza moved into Martin’s place on the blue line. The switch gives the defensive unit more speed and adds a physical element on offense in the absence of sophomore forward Tony Calderone.
Calderone sat out against Ferris State, but did travel with the team on Wednesday.
A decisive sweep this weekend would cement Michigan as a national-title contender — and the Gophers know that all too well. That alone is enough to ensure that this weekend will at the very least provide more of the grade-A entertainment the Wolverines have delivered all season.