Gophers set to take on Notre Dame in final Big Ten series

The Gophers swept Notre Dame in an away series earlier in the season.

Wisconsin's Dominick Mersch falls into senior Tyler Sheehy at Mariucci Arena on Saturday, Jan 26. The Gophers lost to the Wisconsin Badgers 4-3 after winning 9-4 the night before.

Tony Saunders

Wisconsin’s Dominick Mersch falls into senior Tyler Sheehy at Mariucci Arena on Saturday, Jan 26. The Gophers lost to the Wisconsin Badgers 4-3 after winning 9-4 the night before.

Jack Warrick

Minnesota’s upcoming two-game weekend series against Notre Dame has significant implications for its chance at home ice advantage during the Big Ten Tournament.

It is unlikely the Gophers will make the NCAA tournament unless they win the tournament, as they currently sit at No. 23 in the Pairwise rankings, which decide the 10 teams that get automatic berths in the NCAA Tournament.

“After Ohio State, we’re kind of riding the positive energy,” said freshman forward Nathan Burke. Burke won the Big Ten First Star of the Week for his two-goal, two-assist performance. “That’s a big turnaround for us to have, and we’ve got a bunch of seniors [who] don’t want their season to end poorly, and neither do us freshmen.”

Minnesota has had consistency issues this season. Last weekend, the Gophers swept then-No. 2 Ohio State, but the week before, they lost both weekend games to Penn State. Now, Minnesota will play a team it is 2-0 against: Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are 4-3-2 in the nine games since getting swept by Minnesota.  

After Minnesota swept then-No. 9 Notre Dame at Compton Family Ice Arena in one of its strongest showings of the season, the Gophers lost six of their next eight games. 

“We’ve had those feel-good weekends this year, and that was one of them,” said head coach Bob Motzko. “The negative is we didn’t build off it. After that weekend, we didn’t do very well for a few weeks. … I hope we learned a lesson.”

Minnesota goaltender Mat Robson started and played both games against Notre Dame in the first series. The Gophers were out-shot 78-48 in the two games, though they out-scored Notre Dame 7-2. 

Last weekend, the Gophers’ other goaltender Eric Schierhorn played the Friday game while Robson played the Saturday contest. Schierhorn tallied 21 saves while Robson recorded 43 in the two 4-3 victories. It was Schierhorn’s first full 60-minute game of the season. He was the Big Ten Goaltender of the year his freshman and sophomore seasons.

“It’s always an option,” Motzko said of playing each goaltender this weekend, though he said he didn’t have a plan. “Both of them helped us last week, and I think both of them have helped us all year long, so we’re in a good spot.”

Last season, the Gophers finished with the No. 5 seed in the Big Ten Tournament. It meant they had to travel to No. 4-seeded Penn State to play the Nittany Lions in their own arena after suffering a sweep to them to finish off the regular season. Minnesota lost those first two games of the Big Ten Tournament and dropped out in the first weekend. 

“Obviously last year playing Penn State, that was tough playing four straight there. So we’re going to try our best to get that home ice advantage here, and play in front of our fans,” said senior defenseman Jack Sadek. 

Motzko said forward Brannon McManus will probably be back from injury on Friday after sitting out in Saturday’s game. He didn’t say if defenseman Clayton Phillips will be back.