MINNEAPOLIS - This time last year, the University of Minnesota men’s hockey team was getting ready to head to Penn State to play in the Big Ten Tournament and fight for its NCAA life.
Fast forward nearly 365 days, and a lot has changed for the Gophers on and off the ice. Minnesota heads to Notre Dame on Friday, and as the No. 2 seed will face Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament. The Gophers enter the postseason ranked No. 4 in the country after taking second in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin, and should be an NCAA Tournament lock regardless of what happens at Notre Dame.
If the Gophers (20-6, 16-6 Big Ten) beat the Spartans on Sunday, which they already have four times this year, they face the Michigan/Ohio State winner in the semifinals on Monday.
Coach Bob Motzko said after beating the Wolverines last Saturday to end the regular season, the team was given two days off and told not to practice on Monday. They got back at it on Tuesday.
"They had a lot of spirit today, I can tell you that. They’re excited for the playoffs, great opportunity in front of us. Keep getting better and keep making a stand," Motzko said.
For Motzko, the past is going to stay right where it is, in the past. The Gophers have four wins over Michigan State this season by a combined 16-6. The Spartans are the No. 7 seed, and enter the postseason on a six-game losing streak. They haven't won in nearly a month.
None of that matters in March, especially in a one-game elimination format.
"They’ve had a tough stretch here, but it’s over. They’re going to get a fresh set of downs now. They’re looking for hope and if you give them hope and you’re not ready to go, they’ll play off that hope," Motzko said. "Our league is not very forgiving. We’ve got to respect our opponent and make sure we’re ready to go this weekend."
His players are saying the same thing, though it’s hard not to feel confident going into the playoffs.
The Gophers responded from a 5-2 loss to Michigan last Friday with a 4-2 win. They head to Notre Dame having won five of their past six games, and they’re 9-1 away from 3M at Mariucci Arena this season. The program is eager to get back to its first NCAA Tournament since the 2016-17 season.
They’d like to get back to the standard of reaching the Frozen Four.
"We’re all so excited to get on that plane Friday. I think we’re all kind of licking the chops right now, it’s time to go now and this is when it really gets important," defenseman Brock Faber said. "Proving it to our fans, to the guys in the locker room that this program is really turning around and we’re going to keep coming. It starts Sunday."
The Gophers enter the Big Ten Tournament loaded with offensive talent. Six players have at least 20 points through 26 games, led by Sampo Ranta’s 26, which includes a team-leading 16 goals. Sammy Walker and Been Meyers each have 25, and Scott Reedy has 24 and is tied for the team lead with 15 assists.
Add to that goalie Jack LaFontaine, a nominee for the Hobey Baker Award. In 24 starts, he’s 18-6 with five shutouts and has a 1.68 goals against average, along with a .935 save percentage.
At least on paper, it’s all coming together. Faber says it’s about the team keeping it that way.
"A lot of times at this time of the year, the teams that are tight knit, are playing for each other, are playing for the right reasons, I think those are the teams that really go all the way," Faber said. "That’s been our main focus coming down the wire here is playing for each other, playing the crest on the front, not the back."