In September, the six Big Ten hockey coaches gathered at Joe Louis Arena and cast votes to predict how the conference’s second season would shake out. Not surprisingly, preseason rankings listed Minnesota — which lost to Union in the National Championship last season — on top, followed by Michigan and a young Wisconsin squad.

Now, three months later, with the Badgers limping into the new year at 2-11-1, it seems this three-team race will come down to the two facing off at Yost Ice Arena this weekend.

While it’s only early January, when the Wolverines take on No. 8 Minnesota in their first series of 2015, the results will likely play a major role in determining the Big Ten champion come March.

“We talked about it a little bit this week, how hard it is to win (in Minneapolis),” said junior forward Andrew Copp. “There’s some added pressure on winning the weekend here, for sure, and then trying to steal some points up there.

“I think everyone in our locker room knows, not just for the Big Ten but for the Pairwise (Rankings) too, we’re in a pretty good spot if we win the weekend.”

The reigning Big Ten champion, Minnesota (1-0-1 Big Ten, 10-5-1 overall) currently occupies fourth place in the conference standings, having earned a win and a tie in its only Big Ten series against Michigan State.

Though the Wolverines will have the upper hand at even strength — Michigan boasts the No. 5 offense in the country, scoring 3.65 goals per game — the Golden Gophers will be even tougher to beat if the game is decided by special teams.

Minnesota has converted on 30 percent of its power-play opportunities this season, good for second-best in the nation. Four players — forwards Kyle Rau, Connor Reilly, Justin Kloos and Travis Boyd — have combined for 14 of the Gophers’ 18 power-play goals, heading the lethal unit.

Both teams will also benefit from the return of key players who participated in the 2014-15 World Junior Championships in Canada.

Minnesota forwards Ryan Collins and Hudson Fasching returned to the team following the United States’ loss to Russia in the quarterfinals. The Russians also sent Swedish forward Leon Bristedt back to Minneapolis after the semifinal round.

And though they managed two wins and a Great Lakes Invitational title, the Wolverines managed just four goals in the tournament without three of their top six forwards and their offensive-minded defenseman in freshman Zach Werenski. The offense will welcome the return of freshman Dylan Larkin — who scored seven points, including a team-leading five goals in four games — as well as sophomores JT Compher and Tyler Motte.

Larkin will return to his position at center on the second line, flanked by sophomore Alex Kile and senior Zach Hyman. Kile and Hyman skated on the top line with Copp during the GLI and stood out as the most productive trio during the tournament.

Still, the versatility the three displayed in those two games means Berenson will have options should the lineup need changing.

Beyond conference bragging rights, a win over Minnesota would be impactful to the Pairwise Rankings at the end of the regular season.

Though Michigan bettered its resume with a win over No. 5 Michigan Tech in the GLI, it will need wins over its strongest opponents to secure a postseason bid. And given the weakness of the Big Ten, the Golden Gophers are the team to beat.

Following an MVP-worthy performance in net at the GLI, junior goaltender Steve Racine will likely get the start Friday against Minnesota. Racine made both losing starts against the first-ranked Golden Gophers in Minneapolis last season, but sophomore netminder Zach Nagelvoort secured the starting position by March, when the Wolverines split the home series.

No matter who starts in net this weekend, Berenson reiterated that there is still a decision to make in practice each week.

“I want them to battle,” Berenson said. “I told coach (Josh Blackburn) to tell them that this job is wide open. We need a goalie to step forward and earn the right to be our starting goalie.”

Still, Racine has been off ice for the better part of the last two weeks, and he, like the rest of his teammates, will have a tough first opponent in Minnesota.

“I don’t know if playing (the Golden Gophers) is nice or not,” Berenson said. “I’ll tell you after the weekend.”

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