Gophers’ margin for error slim as season dwindles

Minnesota has a one-point lead in the Big Ten with four games to go.

Gophers defense Jake Bischoff fights to maintain control of the puck while playing against Penn State in Mariucci Arena on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016.

Joe Sulik, Daily File Photo

Gophers defense Jake Bischoff fights to maintain control of the puck while playing against Penn State in Mariucci Arena on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016.

Mike Hendrickson

Hudson Fasching’s overtime goal against No. 6 Michigan didn’t just give the Gophers a series split with the Wolverines. It also kept the team’s Big Ten title hopes very much alive.
No. 17 Minnesota is ahead of Michigan by one point in the Big Ten standings with four regular season games to go. The Gophers won the first two regular season titles in the conference, and their last two series are against the bottom two teams in the Big Ten standings.
“There’s no question that if we wanted to try to defend our crown that we had to win [Friday],” head coach Don Lucia said after Friday’s game. “There’s no way you’re going to fall back [five] points with four games to go and think you’re going to have a chance to win [the Big Ten].”
The Gophers have a lot to gain by finishing the regular season strong. The team could win its fifth consecutive conference title as well as increase its chances of making the NCAA tournament.
Minnesota would receive an automatic bid if it won the Big Ten tournament for the second year in a row, but the team is also on the bubble for an at-large bid.
The Gophers are currently tied for 16th in the PairWise rankings, a system that tries to mimic the NCAA tournament selection process.
Sixteen teams are in the tournament every year but six receive automatic bids based on winning their conference. The Gophers will likely need to move a few spots higher to feel secure about their chances.
The team’s status makes its last two series at fifth-place Michigan State and against sixth-place Wisconsin important to keeping it in the tournament conversation. The Gophers are 4-0 against the two teams this season.
“Towards the end of the year, every game is important,” junior defenseman Jake Bischoff said. “Going into this weekend [against Michigan State], we’re definitely looking to take six points.”
Even if it doesn’t guarantee a tournament spot, the Gophers are still focused on winning their fifth consecutive regular season conference title.
“It is important,” Lucia said. “Anytime you can look up in the rafters and hang another banner, that’s a good thing.”
The Wolverines have a more difficult schedule than Minnesota the last four games, starting with a home-and-home series with fourth-place Ohio State this weekend.
The following weekend Michigan hosts third-place No. 14 Penn State.
Despite the Gophers comparatively easy schedule, freshman goaltender Eric Schierhorn said the team isn’t taking its final regular season games lightly.
“That doesn’t need to be emphasized to us,” Schierhorn said. “We know what the Big Ten standings look like, and we know what’s at stake. We’ll be ready for it.”
Emily Nicole Polglaze contributed to this report.