The Gophers men’s hockey team hasn’t concerned itself too much with rankings or standings this season.
Instead, it just focused on playing the best.
That hasn’t been much of an issue, as the Gophers have held the No. 1 ranking and first-place Big Ten spot for most of the season.
But this weekend, that blissful ignorance is going to have to end.
After a victory and a tie with a shootout loss last weekend at Ohio State, the Gophers need to win at least one game against Michigan in this last series of the conference season to clinch the Big Ten regular-season title.
Some players say the regular-season title should already be in hand.
“Our goal last weekend was to finish the deal,” said sophomore defenseman Brady Skjei. “[We] let it slip away there in the last … couple minutes.”
The Gophers are five points ahead of Wisconsin in the standings. Though the team has already solidified a bye into the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament, letting the regular season slip away isn’t an option.
“There’s definitely a sense of urgency coming into this weekend,” freshman forward Hudson Fasching said, adding that the season series trophy with Michigan is also up for grabs.
Gophers head coach Don Lucia said even though his team is forced to discuss the conference standings now, he isn’t stressed.
“I think the pressure is when you’re one and done,” he said. “We’re certainly not in that situation right now.”
Lucia said it is more important for the Gophers to continue to play well heading into the postseason — a time when one game can make the difference.
Ann Arbor poses a challenge
An added challenge to this weekend is the atmosphere. This will be the first trip to Yost Arena for many of the Gophers.
“It’s not easy going to Ann Arbor,” Lucia said. “I don’t know if there is a more enjoyable place to play on the road in college hockey just from the environment standpoint.”
Still, the coach does have at least a few players with some experience in Michigan. Fasching, Skjei and junior forward Travis Boyd all played in the state for two years as part of the U.S. National Development Team Program.
Boyd said he has tried to enlighten his teammates about the loud arena. He admitted it was a bit different when he played there against Michigan as a member of the U.S. National Developmental Team Program.
“We were a bunch of 17-year-old kids trying to go out there and play against the college guys,” he said.
Lucia attended a game at Yost Arena in early December to scout for the World Juniors team.
“That building was [three-quarters] full, and I’m sure half the Michigan guys would have liked to have studied for their exams rather than play a game,” he said. “The pace will be a little bit higher this weekend.”
Gophers junior forward Sam Warning is still questionable for this weekend’s games after he sat out the last game at Ohio State with an upper-body injury.