With Gophers chasing another Big Ten title, Mariucci Arena has life again

Bob Motzko could feel it on the bench as the University of Minnesota men’s hockey team earned a hard-fought split against Michigan at 3M Arena at Mariucci last weekend.

At least one Gophers’ player said he had goosebumps on the bench after goals. The Gophers beat the Wolverines 4-3 in overtime Friday night, then lost 5-4 in extra hockey. But two of the top teams in the Big Ten did battle in front of a capacity crowd at Mariucci. Team officials announced more than 20,000 fans took in the weekend action.

It appears the days of empty seats at the Gophers’ home are done after leaving the WCHA for the Big Ten.

"It also brings the best out of the other team. You can’t help but be in that atmosphere, that’s as big-time an atmosphere as you’ll see in college sports. Our crowds have been coming back for a couple years. It’s been phenomenal, and it gives the building a whole different vibe," Gophers coach Bob Motzko said Wednesday. "You feel it on the bench, our guys feel it and we should appreciate it. It’s great for our program."

They should expect a similar atmosphere this weekend against Michigan State for their penultimate regular season home series. Team officials say as of Wednesday, Saturday afternoon’s game is a sellout and Friday is close.

"Oh my gosh, that was a crazy atmosphere. Goosebumps on the bench when we scored. It was awesome to see the fans back in here and that’s what Mariucci should be like," senior forward Colin Schmidt said. "We’re playing well and the fans know that, it’s good to see."

The Gophers are 18-7-1 on the season and 12-3-1 to lead the Big Ten. They’re ranked No. 2 in the country, and are also 11-3 on home ice as the Spartans come to Minneapolis.

This might be as deep and talented a roster as Motzko has ever had as a head coach. This week, defenseman Jackson LaCombe was named the Big Ten’s First Star of the Week. The Eden Prairie naïve had four points last weekend, three on Friday night, including the game-tying goal before an overtime win.

LaCombe assisted on the goal that forced overtime Saturday. He has a point in 18 of his 26 games, and leads Big Ten defensemen with 25 points on the season. That’s also second in the country.

LaCombe is also one of three Gophers to be nominated for the Hobey Baker Award, the annual honor for the top player in college hockey. He joins Brock Faber and Matthew Knies.

"It’s special for sure. On our team we’ve got so many guys up for that award and I guess to us it doesn’t really matter. We’re focused on our team and having fun," LaCombe said. "We have so many guys up there, so whoever it is, is cool with us."

Three per team is the maximum that can be nominated. Motzko thinks he could have several other Gophers on the list.

"We have three but we’re pretty fortunate, and we know that. They only put three in off a team, but do you stop at (Justin) Cooley and (Jimmy) Snuggerud and Ryan Johnson and (Justen) Close? There are some awful good players we got on our roster right now," Motzko said.

The Gophers have four regular season series remaining to win a Big Ten regular season title, solidify home ice and prepare for a run in the NCAA Tournament. They’ll get one final break after this weekend, and then it’s go time.

"It’s fun to be part of the conversation, it’s not fun when you’re not part of it. We are heading into the fun stretch of college hockey," Motzko said. "Buckle up for a ride."