The Minnesota Golden Gophers continue with their collective backs against the wall this coming weekend.
The Gophers are heading back to the dreaded Pegula Ice Arena at the Penn State campus for the one-game Big Ten semifinal round after defeating Notre Dame in three games.
This seemingly odd format can be largely attributed to the growing pains of a relatively new conference. Originally, the Big Ten offered a more traditional tournament setting: single elimination with all the games held at one site over one weekend.
Those settings rotated between two of the most reliable college hockey hotbeds: Minnesota and Michigan, with the tournament taking place at each state’s respective NHL arena.
Since that format was only used for four years, it’s safe to say it didn’t work as intended. Thought to be a logical successor to the WCHA Final Five that was popular and held in St. Paul every year, it made sense to progress this way.
Instead, attendance was dismal, which overall showed interest was low. So, the Big Ten pivoted. The conference wanted to spark attendance, so it gave the tournament’s top seeds home-ice advantage. From that also came a format that included a lot of moving parts and more time was needed to logistically make campus sites work.
The tournament is now held over three weekends with the opening series of the bottom six seeds battling it out over a best-of-three series while the top seed sits and waits in a bye weekend. After the parity battle of the first weekend series, the tournament moves to single elimination for the semifinal and final rounds.
So, if the Gophers can’t get going on Saturday against Penn State, that’s it. There’s no Saturday rebound game, and for that matter, no resurgent Sunday night game either. It’s one and done, and as can go in hockey, if one team finds a groove or a goaltender has a good night, one unsuspecting team can see the end to its season.
In this case, Minnesota is the underdog. Penn State was the team with that first-round bye while the Gophers fought a physical Notre Dame team for three games to get to play again this weekend. There are numerous storylines to watch out for on Saturday’s contest.
The most glaring one that made an appearance frequently for Minnesota in the last few weekends of the season; how will the Gophers perform right from the opening faceoff? It is absolutely paramount to this team’s success that it emerges ready to be competitive with Penn State right from the start. Otherwise, the Gophers could fall behind, compound mistakes and accelerate an end to their season.
Another factor is Penn State’s extreme rest. The last time the Nittany Lions had a game was Feb. 22. Coincidentally, it was a 3-2 victory over Minnesota on the same ice they will play on this weekend. Three weeks without a game could make for a slow start for Penn State, but also, it could emerge with a tremendous jump in anticipation of the game.
There’s no telling for either of those until the game actually takes place, but the early stages of the game should be telling as to which way the tides may turn and who will be moving on to the Big Ten championship game the following weekend.