Minnesota not out of NCAA picture quite yet

If the season were to end today, the Gophers would have a spot in the tourney.

by Brian Deutsch

For weeks, Minnesota men’s hockey coach Don Lucia has talked about climbing up in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association standings.

But after stealing three conference points from Wisconsin last weekend, the WCHA isn’t the only ranking the Gophers are gaining ground in.

With four games left in the regular season, Minnesota (13-13-8 overall, 7-11-6 WCHA) has landed in a tie for 14th in the PairWise Rankings – a system developed to mimic the NCAA Selection Committee.

Sixteen teams are selected for the national tournament – although several playoff berths are reserved for the winners of major conference championships like the WCHA.

That means the Gophers aren’t in clear skies yet; the clouds are just dissipating slightly for a team that has surprisingly only picked up one win in the past month.

It may actually be easier for Minnesota to gain an NCAA tournament bid than for the team to get home ice advantage in the playoffs.

“That shows the (WCHA). You look at how many games a team like us has played against teams that are (in the rankings), we’re going be playing close to 30 games by the time the season’s over,” Lucia said. “Other teams are going to be playing eight or 10. A strong schedule helps you and that’s the way it should be.”

Lucia said the team would be OK if the Gophers could win three of the last four games in the regular season, but would definitely need to win the first round of the WCHA tournament.

“We’re kind of lurking around right now. We’ve got four games to try and continue to get points and climb up the standings,” Lucia said. “Öthat first round, there’s no question there will be some elimination. The team that wins will have a chance to go to the NCAAs and the team that loses probably will be out.”

If the season were to end today, Minnesota would draw No. 7 Denver in the first round of the conference competition.

The Pioneers, who clinched home ice advantage last weekend, have owned Minnesota this season – winning three games by at least a 4-1 margin and tying a fourth.

But with four winnable games and possibly as many as eight conference points remaining, the Gophers could climb as high as fourth in the WCHA – eclipsing Wisconsin, which Minnesota currently trails by five points.

And after last weekend, morale around the team appears to be improving as much as the Gophers’ ability to score.

“It’s a lot more exciting, that’s the loudest I’ve heard this building all season there in the second period (Saturday),” sophomore forward Jay Barriball said. “It’s a lot more fun, I think, to get some goals and battle instead of just trying to not have (your opponents) score.”

Barriball and freshman forward Patrick White each put up a pair of goals against the Badgers – both were season highs for goals in a weekend for a pair of skaters that have struggled to find their shots this season.

But sophomore forward Mike Carman said the coaching staff gave the team a little extra motivation for the rest of the season.

“Coaches put up an article during the week about the Wild titled ‘Gritty not pretty’ and we knew that’s how we had to get it done,” Carman said. “We couldn’t be sitting there trying to tic-tac-toe the puck every time. We just had to get it on net and send two or three guys crashing. That’s how we are going to get our goals.”