An early start to Banner Season is possible as Gophers head to Wisconsin with B1G title in reach
There is a conference title available this weekend when the top-ranked Minnesota Gophers visiting their Big Ten archrivals, although the banner that is awarded in April is their true long-term focus.
MADISON, Wis. — With a pair of wins this weekend at Wisconsin, the Minnesota Gophers can clinch their second consecutive Big Ten regular season title. With that in mind, it’s not surprising they were so excited to get to Badgerland that the Gophers packed up following their Wednesday practice at Ridder Arena and headed for Madison a day early, arriving on the Isthmus in the wee hours of the night.
The reality is a last-minute change in travel plans was facilitated due to the freezing rain and snow that pelted southern Wisconsin on Thursday. But the fact remains that if all goes well, by the time the Gophers’ bus heads northwest on Saturday evening, the three days spent in the shadow of Wisconsin’s state capitol could end with them in possession of the first of three banners that every college hockey team seeks.
Although for the Gophers (20-7-1 overall, 14-3-1 Big Ten), what needs to be done to get that regular-season banner (two wins) is the focus more than the potential result.
“We’re focused on Friday night in Wisconsin. We know we’re right there, but anything can happen. We’re just trying to stay focused on what’s ahead and take it one step at a time,” Gophers captain Brock Faber said. “It would mean more (to clinch) against Wisconsin, absolutely. At the end of the day, that’s a banner we’re happy about, but not the one we’re looking for.”
The unspoken part, from Faber and others, is that the banner that is awarded in April, for the NCAA title, is this team’s ultimate goal.
The Gophers headed to Wisconsin well-rested, having had last weekend off. One player was limited in practice, but they expect to have a full lineup by Friday’s first faceoff. Coach Bob Motzko said they worked to strike a balance between making sure players rested, but also stretching their legs a few times to avoid the rust that was a hindrance for a few weeks following the holiday break.
On the home bench, Wisconsin’s struggles this season are well-documented. They have three conference wins, and come into the Border Battle weekend riding a five-game losing streak. Badgers coach Tony Granato, who is likely on the hot seat as his team faces a second consecutive finish in the lower echelon of the conference standings, did not at all like what he saw last weekend at Michigan, when Wisconsin (10-18-0, 3-15-0) was swept by a surging Wolverines team.
“Last weekend was not fun. It was not good. It was not what’s expected of our team. It was our worst weekend of the year,” Granato said. “As you go along throughout the season you’re always looking for challenges. You’re always looking for steps to say, ‘We’re getting it. We’re close.’ I’ve been saying that the last couple weeks. I think a lot of the things we were doing were good and solid, we just weren’t getting the results I thought we deserved. And the weekend against Michigan, we didn’t deserve anything.”
The Badgers were swept at 3M Arena at Mariucci in December, in a pair of vastly different games, with Minnesota winning the opener 7-1, then coming from behind following a major penalty against Wisconsin to win the series finale 6-4. Motzko said the Gophers’ last outing, where they beat Michigan State 8-0, then had to come from behind to beat the Spartans 6-3 in the rematch, is a good example of life in the Big Ten, with every team clawing for points and playoff position.
“You have to be ready to play. Whatever happened in our last series, that’s in the toilet,” Motzko said. “We have to be on top of our game. We have to do certain things right on.”
If they do those things, a new Gophers banner is theirs for the taking. Although the banner available two months from now in Tampa, Florida, is still the big prize.
Wolverines, Spartans to Duel in the D
The arch-rivals from the Mitten – Michigan and Michigan State – enter the weekend tied with 30 points each, although the Wolverines (18-9-1, 10-8-0) have played two fewer games, putting them in the conference standings drivers’ seat. Michigan State (15-13-2, 9-9-2), which has not won a Big Ten playoff game in the past decade, has put itself in a realistic position for home ice, which would be a huge step forward for the program under first-year head coach Adam Nightingale. They will play Friday night in East Lansing, then the stage gets notably bigger on Saturday, when they meet at Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena, home of the NHL’s Red Wings, for the series finale.
Buckeyes battle for home ice in South Bend
Ohio State, which has won just two of its past five games, looks to right the ship and take a step toward home ice with a visit to Notre Dame this weekend. The Buckeyes (17-10-1, 10-8-0) need four wins in their final six games to clinch a finish in the league’s top four, which would bring the first round of the conference playoffs to Columbus. With a series at top-ranked Minnesota to close the regular season, Steve Rohlik’s team would certainly like to know their playoff venue before they get to Minneapolis. Notre Dame (13-14-3, 8-10-2) is coming off a pair of losses at Michigan State last weekend. The Irish will celebrate their program’s seniors this weekend.
Penn State (19-10-1, 9-10-1) is idle this weekend. The Nittany Lions host Minnesota on Feb. 17-18.
Gophers weekend details
The games versus Wisconsin face off at 7 p.m. CT on Friday and 5 p.m. CT Saturday at the Kohl Center in Madison. Friday’s game will be televised by Bally Sports North ’s Wisconsin-based broadcast team, with Brian Posick and Bill Brophy calling the plays. Saturday’s game will be televised by Big Ten Network , with Dan Kelly and former Gophers defenseman Ben Clymer on the call.
On radio, the Gophers can be heard on 1130 AM / 103.5 FM in the Twin Cities with Wally Shaver and Frank Mazzocco in their 11th season together describing the action.
The Gophers are 180-100-24 all-time versus the Badgers, which includes a pair of Minnesota wins earlier this season in Minneapolis. Minnesota has won six of its last seven meetings with the Badgers, which includes the 2021 Big Ten tournament title game, won by the Gophers 6-4 at Notre Dame’s Compton Family Ice Arena. The last time Wisconsin hosted the top-ranked team in the nation at the Kohl Center was Feb. 6-7, 2014, when the Badgers swept then-No. 1 Minnesota with a pair of 2-1 victories.
Minnesota can clinch the Big Ten regular season title as early as Friday with a win at Wisconsin and losses by Michigan and Ohio State.