Given the modest preseason expectations placed on Minnesota’s men’s hockey team, an 8-3-0 start and a No. 3 national ranking is enough to have most raving about the Gophers.
Those parties, however, do not include coach Don Lucia.
After a weekend split at Denver, in which Minnesota was outshot by 27, Lucia said the Gophers were lucky to leave with one win and had strong words for his team Monday – both publicly and privately.
“I’m satisfied with 8-3, but we have a handful of guys that aren’t playing up to their potential,” Lucia said. “We have some guys that are playing very well, but we also have guys that could play a lot better.”
The coach gave a similar speech to his team before a rigorous practice Monday, pointing to former Gophers Hobey Baker Award winner Jordan Leopold, who skated with the team, as a benchmark Minnesota’s players have not yet met.
What a perfect time, then, to bring on Michigan.
Michigan, who, along with Michigan State, visits Mariucci Arena for the College Hockey Showcase this weekend, is the nation’s top-ranked team and the owner of an 8-1-0 mark in its last nine games.
The Gophers play the Wolverines at 7 p.m. Friday and the Spartans at 7 p.m. Saturday.
They also likely remain a little ticked about occupying the short end of an increasingly intense rivalry that includes two one-goal Gophers wins in the 2002 and 2003 national semifinals.
“It will give us a better indication of where we’re at. When you play good teams, your weaknesses show,” Lucia said. “I know we’ll not play a better team this year.”
And while the Spartans have stumbled to a 5-6-1 start, including a 3-5-0 CCHA mark, they are nothing to sneeze at either.
Michigan State has qualified for the NCAA Tournament 10 of the last 11 years, making this weekend a test Minnesota is eager to face.
“It’s a huge weekend as far as end-of-the-year evaluations are concerned,” Gophers forward Garrett Smaagaard said. “They’re Big Ten teams; we’re a Big Ten team. Their football teams kind of beat up on us, so we’ll try and redeem ourselves there.”
While it was two trips to Michigan that sent Minnesota’s football team’s season into a downward spiral, Gophers hockey could set itself up for the end of the year with a successful weekend against the Wolverines and Spartans.
“This is one of the telltale weekends in terms of how we match up,” forward Jake Fleming said. “The WCHA is a great league. But when you play teams across the country, you get an idea of how good you really are.”
And with a couple of major nonconference wins this weekend, the Gophers could boost their standing in the Pairwise Rankings, a formula designed to mimic the NCAA Tournament seeding process.
The rankings, which traditionally have displayed remarkable accuracy in predicting the tournament field, award a bonus for defeating teams ranked in the top 15.
And because Michigan and Michigan State figure to be in the mix come March, Lucia is not shy about bringing up this weekend’s postseason implications.
“It’s always been an important weekend for the end of the year in terms of seedings,” he said. “You can pencil Michigan and Michigan State into the NCAA Tournament every year, so it’s a good opportunity to see where we’re at.”