With an up and down regular season coming to an end last Saturday night, the Minnesota Golden Gophers finished on a high note, sweeping No. 12 Arizona State, who came into 3M Arena at Mariucci sporting a record of 21-10-1.
In their first season under head coach Bob Motzko the Gophers finished the regular season with a record of 16-15-4, 11-10-3 in conference play, and will look to ride their best stretch of the season into the Big Ten Tournament.
“Playoffs are right here,” Motzko said after their victory on Friday night. “They (Arizona State) have a lot to play for. There was some tensity out there, it was hard fought.”
The Gophers earned the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament, setting the stage for a first-round clash with the No. 6 Michigan Wolverines this weekend in a best-of-three series at Mariucci.
With the Gophers sitting at No. 20 in the Pairwise Rankings, they will likely need to win the Big Ten Title to advance on to the NCAA Tournament. If they can’t secure the automatic bid, the Gophers will find themselves watching the national tournament from home for the second year in a row.
Since the rest of their season will be win or go home for the Maroon and Gold, let’s take a look at some of the bright spots from this late surge that will have to continue into the Big Ten Tournament for Minnesota to extend its playoff run.
Hot at the right time
Every coach wants their team playing its best hockey at the end of the season, and Coach Motzko has his guys doing exactly that. Finishing with five wins in their last six games, all against ranked opponents, the Gophers look like they may have finally found their stride. In their most recent series, they outscored the Sun Devils by seven goals and outshot them by 36 shots.
And junior forward Tyler Nanne, who contributed a goal and two assists in the series with ASU, thinks the best is still to come.
“I know we have more in the tank,” Nanne says when asked if the Gophers are reaching their peak. “It’s a solid win, and we’re happy with it, but we’re going to take it one game at a time.”
Junior goalie Mat Robson is also playing some of his best hockey of the season, helping to guide the Maroon and Gold on this late-season push. In his last four games, Robson is rocking a save percentage of .932 and giving up 2.00 goals against per game, both figures up from Robson’s year-long numbers in conference play at .922 save percentage and 2.90 GAA.
It will take all facets of the roster running on all cylinders if Minnesota is to make it beyond the conference tournament.
Touting a top 20 offense, Minnesota will need to stay hot in the offensive zone after scoring five goals in each game last weekend.
Hobey Baker nominee Rem Pitlick leads the offensive attack with 19 goals and 41 points, tied for fifth in the nation. But Pitlick isn’t the only one who can drive the Gophers offense. Captain Tyler Sheehy has notched 38 points in his senior season, tied for 14th in the nation, and fellow captain Brent Gates Jr. has 30 points in his junior campaign.
Sophomore Brannon McManus sits tied with Gates at 14 goals, while Sammy Walker leads all Gopher rookies, lighting the lamp 10 times. His 24 points are second best for any Big Ten rookie.
Not only will the top players need to step up, but Minnesota will need balanced scoring across their roster to get past Michigan and beyond.
“Moving into the playoffs, I think it’s huge to spread out offense,” Motzko said. “You start building on it. How many times do you see somebody lead your team scoring in the playoffs that was sixth in the regular season?”
Nine different Gophers found the back of the net against the Sun Devils. That trend will need to continue to be successful in the playoffs.
Special teams play
The Gophers finished with the best net special teams numbers of any Big Ten team. With the power play running at a 24.2 percent, good for second in the conference and seventh in the nation, this is a team that can make you pay for undisciplined mistakes with Pitlick and Gates combining for 17 power play goals.
While the power play has been very good, the penalty kill is nothing to sneeze at either. Killing penalties at an 83.2 percent success rate is good enough for first in the Big Ten and will be crucial if Minnesota wants a chance at winning the conference tournament.
But even with a strong penalty kill, being disciplined and staying out of the box will be critical in making a postseason run. While the Gophers only find themselves shorthanded an average of 2.97 times a game, taking penalties at bad times will make it very difficult to advance to the next round.
Arizona State wore a path to the penalty box and allowed the Gophers to spend ample time on the power play, but early in game one, the Gopher took a couple of penalties that gave the Sun Devils the only life they had for the majority of the weekend.
Putting it all together
This late-season success should have the Gophers playing with confidence when they hit the ice on Friday night. Consistency has proven to be a problem for the Gophers this year, but if they can bottle their recent performances and build on these areas of strength, they might be able to jump off the rollercoaster at the perfect time.
If they do, Minnesota could be a dark horse to come out of the Big Ten Tournament and create problems in the NCAA Regionals.