Plenty to play for as Minnesota hosts Michigan Tech in regular-season finale

The Huskies could finish anywhere from fourth to eighth in the conference standings.

Mark Remme

After a disappointing sweep at the hands of St. Cloud State last weekend, Minnesota’s men’s hockey team has one more tune-up before the postseason begins.

But with Michigan Tech coming to town, a streaking squad that is 3-0-1 in its past four contests, it’s not getting any easier for the fourth-ranked Gophers.

The Western Collegiate Hockey Association series takes place at Mariucci Arena tonight and Saturday. Both games are slated for 7:07 p.m.

Minnesota (25-7-3 overall, 17-6-3 WCHA) knows its scenario very well: One tie and it’ll at least own a share of the MacNaughton Cup for the second straight season.

For Michigan Tech, the stakes are a bit higher. Tied for sixth place in the WCHA with Minnesota State, the Huskies have a wide scope of where they could end up in the first round of the conference playoffs.

They could conceivably host a first-round best-of-three series or, in stark contrast, they could end up traveling to a top-three seed.

“We could finish anywhere from fourth place to eighth place because the standings are so tight,” Huskies coach Jamie Russell said. “To be honest, it’s been playoff hockey since the middle of January for us.”

With that in mind, Michigan Tech (15-14-5, 10-11-5) will try to continue the success it had against Denver and Wisconsin over the past two weeks.

The Huskies earned a win and a tie with the Pioneers before sweeping the Badgers at home last weekend, keeping their home-ice dreams alive.

Such hopes are not to be taken lightly in WCHA postseason play, something Gophers junior forward Ben Gordon said is at a premium.

“You get to sleep in your own bed, eat your own food and you don’t have to be traveling on the road,” Gordon said. “They have a lot to play for.”

Not to say Minnesota doesn’t, as it failed to clinch the conference title in two attempts against a playoff-ready St. Cloud State opponent.

Gophers coach Don Lucia said much of the reason his team has sputtered the past few weeks is the grind of a long season.

It’s something Lucia and his staff took into account when planning the practice schedule for the week.

“We gave the guys yesterday off,” Lucia said. “We want to make sure the players are physically and mentally fresh.”

Perhaps a little rest will go a long way for Minnesota’s on-ice performance, something players admit lacked grit and toughness again last weekend.

“It’s a mental thing,” Gordon said. “It’s natural that once people start telling you you’re better than you are, you start getting away from what got you there.”

Sophomore center Blake Wheeler was on the same page, saying parts of the team’s strengths early on were cast aside recently. He said it needs to return for the playoffs.

“That was our identity at the beginning of the year; people were going through brick walls to get the job done,” Wheeler said. “That’s what it takes in the postseason, when games get kinda ugly.”

And with these two games remaining before playoffs begin, this version of the Gophers needs no history lesson to understand what happens when identity is lost.

Gordon said it’s time to begin putting the wheels in motion for a successful postseason, and he said he knows much of the weight falls on upperclassmen like himself who have gone through the grind before.

“We’ve had a couple disappointing postseasons since we’ve been here and we don’t want that to happen,” Gordon said. “We’ve gotta put some of the weight on our shoulders.”