Gophers head into pivotal weekend

The top four teams in the Big Ten are separated by a total of three points.

Gophers forward Travis Boyd handles the puck at Mariucci Arena on Feb. 7.

Daily File Photo, Alex Tuthill-Preus

Gophers forward Travis Boyd handles the puck at Mariucci Arena on Feb. 7.

Ben Gotz

The Gophers’ six seniors have never left the regular season without a title, but they’re in danger of snapping that streak this weekend.

Entering their final series of the regular season, the Gophers are tied for second place in the Big Ten with Michigan. One point separates them from No. 1 Michigan State, which will play a home-and-home series with Michigan this weekend.

“Every journey is different,” head coach Don Lucia said. “It’s been a little bit of a meandering journey with this group, but hopefully we can end it on a good, positive note.”

In the Big Ten’s second season as a hockey conference, only three conference points, the equivalent of a conference victory, separate fourth-place Penn State — Minnesota’s weekend opponent — from Michigan State.

“We knew the league was going to be much more compressed this year,” Lucia said.

But the Gophers would be in a better position in the standings if a few things were different.

The team missed out on conference points with shootout losses during the season. The Gophers took opponents to overtime five times during the conference schedule, and they never came out with a victory.

“I just keep looking back at all the points we should have had, or missed out on, in close games, and [then we] probably wouldn’t be in this situation,” senior forward Travis Boyd said. “But it is what it is, and we are where we are.”

Lucia said the team doesn’t plan to scoreboard watch. But Michigan and Michigan State’s second game should be done by the time the Gophers take the ice on Saturday, which means the team will know whether it still has a chance for its fourth-consecutive regular-season championship.

But the Gophers are planning to focus on themselves Saturday, after losing three- straight series finales.

“Friday, we’ve been playing well,” senior defenseman Ben Marshall said. “We need to really realize this Saturday night, both nights I guess, things need to go well for us this weekend.”

The Gophers didn’t have specific answers to the cause of their Saturday-game woes, prompting Lucia to joke about his how he plans to turn things around this weekend.

“Light some firecrackers before we go out? I don’t know,” Lucia said. “It still gets back to playing the right way and managing the puck … and trying to have a good, strong first period because it’s a lot easier to play with a lead.”

A sweep would give the Gophers a boost in the rankings. They currently sit on the bubble of the NCAA tournament.

Minnesota will get into the tournament automatically if it wins the Big Ten tournament next weekend, but senior captain Kyle Rau said they would prefer not going that route.

“We know the importance [of] this weekend,” Rau said. “We don’t want to be going into the Big Ten [tournament] having to win it.”

The senior class would be the first class in program history to win a fourth-consecutive regular-season title. But the Gophers still have their sights set higher than the Big Ten.

“It’s cool, but it’s not why I came here. And it’s not why anyone in our locker room came here,” Rau said. “I think we’re close. I like our team. I like where we’re at right now. … Everyone knows when you get in the playoffs; it’s single elimination. All it takes is one bounce.”