Gophers set for second year of Big Ten play

Minnesota will begin its conference schedule against Michigan State.

by Ben Gotz

The Gophers had to travel to new arenas across the Midwest last year as part of their new normal: playing hockey in the Big Ten.

They will make their first repeat trip this weekend, opening up conference play against Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich.

Even though the team isn’t heading into completely different territory, the Gophers are still, in some ways, adjusting to the new conference.

Head coach Don Lucia said it’s different beginning conference play in December after years of playing WCHA matchups much earlier in the year.

“It seems weird, still, to be in conference play so late,” Lucia said. “You’re used to previous years where you’re getting into conference play … in October.”

The late start to conference play didn’t seem to hurt the Gophers last year, though, as they went 14-3-3 in the first year of the Big Ten and won the conference’s first regular-season title.

Minnesota is favored to bring home the regular-season conference title again this year.

Conference coaches picked the Gophers to finish first in a preseason poll, and Minnesota is the only Big Ten team that is currently listed in the USCHO.com college hockey rankings.

The Big Ten’s overall play hasn’t been as strong as expected this season. Three teams were featured in the USCHO’s preseason top 10, but now only Minnesota remains in the top 20.

Michigan, which was ranked No. 8 before the season, is just a game above .500 at 7-6-0. Wisconsin started the year at No. 10, but it didn’t pick up its first victory of the year until last weekend.

Penn State is the only other team in the Big Ten besides Minnesota that is above .500 overall, but it has played only one ranked team so far.

The conference’s current standing could make the path to winning another regular-season title clearer for the Gophers. Senior defenseman Ben Marshall said the team is ready to defend its title.

“It’s exciting to maybe repeat that,” Marshall said. “That might put a little bit more weight on our shoulders, but we like that. We like that target, and I think that it’s good for us.”

If the Gophers want to defend their title, they’ll need to improve on the road.

The Gophers have struggled with away games so far this season, compiling a 1-3 record.

And that’s a problem, Lucia said, the Gophers have to correct fast because the team’s first four conference games, including two this weekend, are on the road.

“Probably the one disappointing thing for me is we’re 1-3 on the road right now,” Lucia said. “Last year, we were 3-1.”

Lucia said the ways to avoid a loss this weekend are by creating more consistent pressure in 5-on-5 situations and limiting turnovers.

“We’re trying not to beat ourselves,” sophomore forward Vinni Lettieri said. “It’ll get a lot more competitive now that we’re playing for the Big Ten title.”