'We're in a real positive spot right now': Surging Gophers head to rival Wisconsin

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))

The Christmas holiday break couldn’t have possibly come at a better time for the University of Minnesota men’s hockey team.

The Gophers (10-10-4) hadn’t earned a regulation win since Nov. 22, and went into the Christmas break with points in only two of their final five games. They weren’t upset with their overall play, they just weren’t getting the results to show for it.

A three-week breather was just what they needed. Coach Bob Motzko said the team had to “hit the refresh button,” and did they ever. The Gophers came back from the Christmas break with a 5-2 win over Bemidji State and a 4-1 win over former WCHA rival St. Cloud State to win the Mariucci Classic.

After splitting a series at Michigan State, the Gophers largely dominated last weekend in a 6-3 and 4-1 sweep of Ohio State at Mariucci Arena. Minnesota has won five of its past seven games.

“It was a good weekend for us. I’m always reluctant to say boy we’ve turned a corner. The minute you say it, whap, you get put back on your hinder,” Motzko said. "The break came at a great time. We just had this feeling that we needed to step away, and we had about 21 days off. Coming back, there was a freshness back inside our group. We just have been more consistent now with a little jump, a little spring in our step since Christmas. Then we get rewarded, score some goals and some wins. We’re in a real positive spot right now.”

Since coming back from the holidays, the Gophers have 23 goals in seven games. After a six-point weekend, junior forward Brannon McManus was named both the NCAA and the Big Ten First Star of the Week.

McManus had two goals and four assists in the weekend sweep as the Gophers improved to 5-5-4 in the Big Ten, and are just four points out of earning home ice with five Big Ten series left to play. McManus had a pair of three-point games against the Buckeyes, and the Gophers are 10-1-1 all time when he records multiple-point games.

Sophomore Sampo Ranta was also named the Big Ten’s Second Star of the Week. He had four points over the weekend, and tied for the NCAA lead with three goals and a plus-7 rating. Ranta scored twice in last Friday’s 6-3 win, his first career-multi-goal game.

“When we play like that, I think we can beat anyone in the country. That was Gopher hockey on Saturday night. In my last three years here, it was one of my favorite games to be a part of to watch our team. Shift after shift, there was not one thought in my head that we weren’t going to win that game,” McManus said.

The Gophers have won three of their last four and five of seven, but they’re not about to take the foot off the gas. They head to Wisconsin this weekend for a rivalry series with the Badgers, who are currently last in the Big Ten at 5-10-1. When the two teams met at Mariucci Arena back in November, the Gophers earned a 4-1 win Friday night before losing in a shoot-out Saturday.

The Badgers come into the weekend with a 7-5 mark at the Kohl Center this year. They’ve split their past two series with Michigan State and Notre Dame.

“They’re playing better right now and they’re getting wins every weekend. That overshadows things, two young teams that really are just desperate to keep feeling good about their year,” Motzko said.

McManus, who is tied for the team lead in points (17) and assists (11) with Ben Meyers, also leads the Gophers with 11 points (3 goals, 8 assists) in 10 career games against Wisconsin.

He expects a hostile environment both nights in Madison.

“It’s definitely special. There’s a different energy, a different compete that both teams have. The student sections get a little more rowdy and Wisconsin is obviously, it’s going to be a tough place to play,” McManus said.

With four regular season series left after Wisconsin, the Gophers are trying to set themselves up for a run in the Big Ten Tournament. If the points go the right way, it could lead to a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Minnesota is currently receiving votes in the U.S. College Hockey Online top-20 poll, and in the always pivotal PairWise Rankings, the Gophers are currently 26th. With five conference champions and 11 at-large bids, Minnesota is currently on the outside looking in.

But anything can and will change with eight games to play, plus the Big Ten Tournament, after this weekend.

“We like our group. We felt all along we were moving in the right direction and maybe we’re starting to show that we are,” Motzko said.