Five for ’15: North Star Cup

Ben Gotz

The Gophers entered the season ranked as the number one team in the country.

This weekend, they'll just try to prove they're the number one team in the state.

The team will square off against their in-state competition this weekend at the North Star Cup, and their path in the tournament starts with the team that has taken their place at the top of the rankings: Minnesota State-Mankato.

"Getting a non-conference game against the No. 1 team in the nation, it’s a big game for us," senior forward Travis Boyd said. "Let’s show them why the Gophers are best in the state."

The Gophers will close out their non-conference schedule this weekend playing their in-state rivals, giving them one last chance to impress onlookers before returning to the Big Ten. Right now, Minnesota and Michigan are the only two ranked teams in the conference.

"If you look at the teams we’ve got on the remainder of our schedule, they’re not as good as pairwise as the teams we could be playing this weekend," senior captain Kyle Rau said. "It’s a big time weekend for us."

Here's four more things happening around the Gophers this weekend, in advance of their trip to the Xcel Energy Center this weekend.

2. State of Hockey

 With three ranked teams coming into the Xcel Energy Center this weekend, the North Star Cup certainly sets itself up as an exciting weekend for Minnesota hockey.

Lucia said he hopes the tournament can grow each year, especially since it is taking place in a relatively quiet time of the year, with the NFL in a week long break for the Super Bowl and the NHL on its All-Star break.

"We’re getting a little bit more focus on this tournament and that’s why we hope it’ll really grow over this weekend," Lucia said.

The tournament will feature top quality competition this weekend as well, with the Gophers entering as the third ranked team in Minnesota.

"You look, around the state, there’s some pretty good teams in our state," Rau said. "It’s fun, it’s good for the fans, it’s good for the players to play those guys because we grew up playing against each other. So it’s always fun to see each other in all our uniforms and to play at the X, it’s always a good time."

But this weekend, the Gophers also know they have something to prove as well.

"A little added intensity into it," Boyd said. "The main thing about this weekend is state pride, and making sure we’re the best team in the state."

3. Lucia Talks Lettieri's Suspension

Sophomore forward Vinni Lettieri was suspended one game by the Big Ten conference for leaving the bench during the on-ice brawl Saturday against the Badgers, and Lucia reflected on the brawl and suspension Wednesday.

"I feel bad for Vinni because he got caught in kind of a circumstance where [junior defenseman Brady Skjei] came out of the penalty box," Lucia said. "Brady was going to change, so Vinni thought he was changing, and I think Brady turned around and saw what was going on so he raced back in there and Vinni kind of stepped on the ice and got in there kind of late. Just separated a couple of people, really didn’t do anything, wasn’t really involved but you know, rules are rules. It was a good learning experience for our guys to remind them if something does happen, you have to stay in the bench or you have to stay in the penalty box. You can’t get involved, even though he was kind of a peacemaker."

4. Wilcox Working on Shootouts

In the middle of their second season of Big Ten play, the Gophers are still working on the art of the shootout.

The Gophers are still winless in conference shootouts, which award an extra point to the victor, and 0-2 so far this year.

"We’ve got to get better, I’ve got to get better at shootouts," junior goaltender Adam Wilcox said. "We’re working on them in practice, kind of starting from scratch, figuring out how we’re going to do it as a player and as a goalie for me. That’s two points that we let get away so far in the Big Ten, two points that we needed, so we need to bear down in our shootouts."

Wilcox said he takes a couple extra breakaways in practice each day to prepare for shootouts, especially now since it's costing the Gophers in the Big Ten standings.

"Especially when you’re not winning them, that’s something that you need to key in on," Wilcox said.

5. Outside Looking In

Ranked No. 18 in the Pairwise rankings right now, the Gophers find themselves in an unfamiliar spot.

If the season were to end today, they would not be part of the NCAA tournament.

"We’ve still got plenty of time," Boyd said. "But still, it’s kind of uncharted waters for plenty of the guys here, to be on the outside looking in right now."

That's what could set up Friday's game against Minnesota State – Mankato as a key moment in the Gophers season. Beating the top ranked team in the country would certainly give their case a boost.

"Pretty evident that we only have eight weeks left so we’ve got to start making moves," Wilcox said. "This is a big weekend for it and it’s a really exciting weekend."