South Bend, IN – The second half surge continues for the Maroon & Gold.
Many viewed the 19-20 campaign as potentially another lost season for the Gophers, especially after a 5-9-4 start. However, the young team started rounding into form after the break, and the Golden Gophers came bursting out of the gates after Christmas, to the tune of a 9-2-1 record.
The latest of these solid results are a win and a tie at Notre Dame to vault into a tie for first place in the Big Ten conference standings. Minnesota came from behind in the third period both Friday and Saturday to earn five key conference points and put themselves in position to potentially win the conference.
The Gophers scored the first two goals on Friday, including Scott Reedy’s opening tally just 28 seconds into the game. Notre Dame scored the next three goals in the first and second to take a slim 3-2 lead heading into the 3rd. Sammy Walker netted the tying goal at 10:13 of the 3rd period, and the game went to both 5×5 and 3×3 overtimes before the Gophers won on the first shootout round.
The end of Friday’s game was marred by a scary-looking injury to defenseman Tyler Nanne. Nanne drove the net late in the 3×3 OT period and crashed head- / left-shoulder-first into the end boards. He did not return and was not on the ice Saturday. His status for the rest of the season is very much in doubt.
Saturday’s contest was tighter, with Notre Dame scoring the game’s first goal midway through the second period and taking another one-goal lead into the third. The Gophers tied it quickly Saturday night, with Ben Meyers scoring 3:34 into the final frame to knot the game at 1-1, and then Blake McLaughlin scoring the game-winner on the powerplay at 6:16. The PP goal was the Gophers’ only goal with the man-advantage on the weekend in eight tries; Minnesota is now 16-for-100 on the season and sits 42nd nationally.
Notre Dame put a good press on the rest of the 3rd period, but the Gophers (behind netminder Jack LaFontaine) kept the puck out of the net and preserved the 2-1 victory.
The five-point weekend moved Minnesota to 36 points total, tied with Penn State for first. Michigan (another team surging in the second half) is third with 33 points, then Michigan State and Ohio State are tied with 31. Notre Dame sits sixth with 29 points, while Wisconsin is locked into last place with 20.
The Gophers face Penn State this upcoming weekend and Michigan in the final weekend of the season, so while Minnesota controls its own destiny, the road will not be easy. Penn State has the final weekend of the season off, so the rest of the league has two games in hand on the Nittany Lions (minus Wisconsin, which has this upcoming weekend off). The maximum total points each team can finish with (in order from high to low) are: Minnesota 48, Michigan 45, MSU 43, OSU 43, PSU 42, ND 41, UW 26.
The Gophers also improved their standing in the PairWise Rankings, which mimic the process the NCAA uses to pick the 16-team Tournament field. Minnesota is up to #17 in the current PWR, but because of conference auto-bids, they’ll probably need to move up to 12 or 13 to feel relatively confident they’ve earned a spot. If they do not move up that high by the end of the season, they’ll need to win the Big Ten playoff tournament to earn the league’s auto-bid into the big dance.
As mentioned, up next for the Maroon & Gold is a trip to Happy Valley to take on the Penn State Nittany Lions. The Nittany Lions are the Big Ten’s best-positioned team in the PairWise Rankings at #10, but have been scuffling a bit of late, going just 3-4-3 in Big Ten play since the break. The Gophers lost badly to Penn State early in the year, but look to turn the tables on a team that has had Minnesota’s number recently.
Friday’s game is at 7:30, while Saturday’s rubber match is a 5:30 start. Both games can be seen on BTN, streamed on the Fox Sports app, and heard on 103.5FM and AM1130.
Gophers with Multiple Point Weekends:
Sammy Walker – 1G-3A
Blake McLaughlin – 2G-1A
Scott Reedy – 1G-1A
Brannon McManus – 0G-2A
Three Gopher Stars of the Weekend
3. Blake McLaughlin – McLaughlin scored the game-winning powerplay goal on Saturday and added a key assist on Reedy’s goal Friday, along with the second Gopher goal of the game Friday. McLaughlin has been good recently, and the team needs it – having two good scoring lines keeps the pressure off either one, and gives depth to the Gophers’ offensive threat.
2. Jack LaFontaine – LaFontaine stopped 39 of 41 shots on Friday and 24 of 25 Saturday for a .955 save percentage on the weekend. The games were close, and Notre Dame put lots of pressure on LaFontaine towards the end of the games. He was an important piece contributing to the five point weekend.
1 Sammy Walker – the captain has been on fire over the past several weekends, and this was no exception. Walker scored the game-tying goal on Friday and added assists on both other Friday scores, as well as the game-winner Saturday. The Walker-Reedy-McLaughlin line has been great, and it’s Walker’s motor and compete level that are one of the huge stories of the turnaround.