'The stakes are as high as they get': Gophers host Notre Dame in Big Ten Tournament

Brannon McManus won NCAA and Big Ten First Star of the Week honors after getting 6 points in last weekend's sweep of Ohio State. ((credit: University of Minnesota))

Senior defenseman Tyler Nanne said it best Wednesday as the University of Minnesota men’s hockey team hosts Notre Dame in the Big Ten Tournament this weekend.

“The stakes are as high as they get,” Nanne said.

He’s right. The Fighting Irish come to 3M at Mariucci Arena this weekend for a best-of-three series. The team that gets to two wins first moves on to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals. The Gophers (14-13-7) need to win the series, at minimum, to stay alive in the NCAA Tournament conversation. They’re currently 15th in the PairWise rankings, and firmly on the bubble for one of 10 at-large bids to the 16-team tournament.

The Gophers have been to the NCAA Tournament 37 times, most recently in 2017. Ironically, the Fighting Irish ended the Gophers’ season that year in a 3-2 win. Minnesota also had its season end last year in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Irish.

Needing wins to keep their season alive, there’s no time to take their foot off the gas this weekend. Blake McLaughlin, fourth on the team in scoring with 22 points, says every shift matters this weekend.

“It’s just playoff hockey. If you can’t get up for it, I don’t know what you’re doing playing hockey,” McLaughlin said.

He added that he and his teammates plan to embrace that pressure.

“One hundred percent I take that on every time. Especially in the playoffs, do or die is kind of what I live for and I would expect it’s what every other hockey player lives for, playing in these big games. You kind of always hear coaches on the bench from Pee Wees through the pro level, who’s going to be the hero tonight? Who’s going to step up and play the big role in the game, step up and take the team on their backs?” McLaughlin said.

There won’t be many secrets when the Gophers and Fighting Irish take the ice this weekend. They’ve met four times in the regular season, and the Gophers are 1-1-2. Back in the first Big Ten series of the season, the Gophers beat the Fighting Irish in double overtime after a 2-2 tie in regulation. Minnesota lost the series finale 5-3.

When the two teams met three weeks ago in South Bend, Ind., the Gophers won in a shoot-out after a 3-3 tie in regulation on Friday night. They capped the series with a 3-2 win on Saturday. Coach Bob Motzko anticipates this weekend’s series to go three games, and expects every game to be close.

“That’s what’s going to happen when you play Notre Dame. You just anticipate it’s going to be a long, hard weekend,” Motzko said.

It should only help the Gophers that they enter the Big Ten Tournament having been battle tested the two previous weekends. Minnesota went to Penn State with a chance to move to the top of the Big Ten before only earning one point on the weekend. Then last weekend, the Gophers were able to earn home ice despite getting only one out of a possible six points.

The stakes have been high enough the last two weekends that the Gophers feel they’re primed for the postseason.

“We felt it and I think they’ll end up being good learning experiences for our team. That’s exactly what it’s going to be, it ain’t going to be any different this week than it was the last two weekends,” Motzko said.