Home-ice chances slimming for Gophers

Minnesota needs wins now to claim a spot in the top half of the WCHA.

by Max Sanders

The Gophers menâÄôs hockey team could realistically find itself anywhere from fourth to eighth place in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association standings come the end of the season. Unfortunately for a Minnesota team that currently sits in seventh place, a lot has to happen to claim a top-five spot and home ice. In order to avoid travelling for the first round of the WCHA playoffs, Minnesota will have to finish strong against some of the conferenceâÄôs elite teams and rely on a little bit of luck from some of the teams they are chasing. Remaining Schedule Feb. 12-13 at Denver: The Gophers begin their final stretch against the conferenceâÄôs best. Minnesota will be facing a Pioneers team that will have much to play for, as they are battling Minnesota-Duluth for the top spot in conference , with the conference winner earning the chance to play bottom-feeder Michigan Tech in the first round of the WCHA tournament. The Gophers will be attempting to seek revenge against Denver, who dominated Minnesota with back-to-back 3-0 shutout victories against the Gophers at Mariucci Arena back in October . Feb. 19-20 vs. Colorado College: Simply put, Minnesota has to earn at least three points against the Tigers if they want to have any chance of hosting the first round of the WCHA tournament. Colorado College currently is tied with Wisconsin for fourth place a nd the final two home-ice spots for the first round. The Gophers currently trail the Tigers by seven points. But Colorado College is playing the next two weekends against non-conference opponents, meaning Minnesota will have an opportunity to close the gap before the crucial series. Feb. 26-27 at Minnesota-Duluth: Much like the series against Denver, Minnesota-Duluth will most likely not be resting its starters against the Gophers. The Bulldogs swept Minnesota in two games in November at Mariucci, including a heartbreaking overtime loss with just 12 seconds remaining in the extra period. Because of how theyâÄôve played up since that loss, the Gophers likely will need at least a split against a team that currently sits second in the conference standings. March 5-7 vs. Wisconsin: Minnesota will likely enter the final series with its playoff spot still on the line. The Badgers are currently tied for the final home-ice spot, and an already intense rivalry will likely reach new heights with so much on the line. The Gophers do not want to have to play a first-round series on the road, as the last time they did so each game went to extra periods. How Minnesota hopes to finish Entering this weekend, the Gophers sit in seventh place. With four series remaining, Minnesota is seven points behind Wisconsin and Colorado College for the final home-ice spots. The Gophers have struggled all season due to injuries, off-ice issues and inconsistent play. Despite their problems, the abundance of talent has kept the team in contention in an airtight WCHA conference. They will need to see increased offensive production from all lines, starting with Jordan Schroeder and Jacob Cepis up front and continuing to Ryan Flynn and Jake Hansen on the third and fourth lines if they are going to close the gap and gain home ice for the first round. While half of their remaining games are on the road, the Gophers do play well on the road, going 6-5-1 at opponentsâÄô home rinks this year. Working against Minnesota is the fact they are playing the conferenceâÄôs two best teams at their own arenas. If the Gophers are to make a late season run, they will have to come away with at least two points in each road series. The two home series will likely decide the playoff seeding of the WCHA conference playoffs. Minnesota will play the two teams it trails and will control its fate against Wisconsin and Colorado College. The Gophers likely need at least three points in each home series if they are to catch either the Badgers or the Tigers. Minnesota needs to finish at least 4-2-2 for 10 points. Playing the Odds At times Minnesota has looked like the preseason top-10 team they were picked to be, with quality wins coming against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Bemidji State. At other times the Gophers have looked like the team that currently sits seventh in conference just ahead of Alaska-Anchorage, losing to Michigan, Minnesota State-Mankato and Alaska. While itâÄôs not too late to turn it around, it doesnâÄôt look likely Don LuciaâÄôs squad will be able to play well enough down the stretch to catch either Wisconsin or Colorado College.