Minneapolis, MN – Coming into the weekend series against Notre Dame, the Gophers knew a few things to be true:
1) They just about needed to win out to have a chance at an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament.
2) They had a good chance to play the first round of the Big Ten tournament on home ice with at least one win.
After a weekend split against the Fighting Irish, it doesn’t appear very likely that Minnesota can make the big dance barring a victory in the Big Ten postseason tournament. However, that road may have gotten the slightest bit easier as they have secured home ice for the first round of the playoffs.
The Gophers (14-15-4 Overall, 11-10-3 B1G) lost a two-goal first period lead Friday, but held onto a slim lead Saturday, splitting with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (17-12-3, 10-10-2) to move to 36 total points. Coupled with the other results around the conference this weekend, it guarantees that only two teams have the chance to pass Minnesota next weekend when the Gophers play non-conference Arizona State.
Minnesota came out like a house of fire Friday night, getting early goals from Brannon McManus and Nathan Burke to take an early 2-0 lead. However, Notre Dame slowly started turning the tide, scoring late in the first, late in the second and midway through the third to complete the comeback and win by a 3-2 score.
The Gophers also got the first goal of the game Saturday when Tyler Nanne scored in the opening period to give Minnesota a 1-0 lead. Notre Dame scored in the second to tie it, but Scott Reedy scored midway through the period to put the Gophers up 2-1, and Mat Robson turned away a furious Irish charge at the end of the third to secure the victory for Minnesota.
Ohio State has locked up first place in the conference with 43 total points, and the Gophers currently sit second at 36. Minnesota plays non-conference next weekend, which means that all the other Big Ten teams have a chance to earn more points and potentially jump past the Gophers. The first place team gets a bye in the first round, while teams 2-4 host teams 5-7 in best-of-three series.
6th place Wisconsin (28 points) and 7th place Michigan State (27 points) cannot move past the Gophers even with a sweep next weekend. That leaves three other teams that have a chance to move up past Minnesota: Penn State (32), Notre Dame (34) and Michigan (34). Penn State and Notre Dame play each other, while Michigan plays Wisconsin to round off the year. Because PSU and Notre Dame face each other next weekend, it is not possible for both teams to jump up ahead of Minnesota, so even if Michigan moves past the Gophers, only one of PSU or Notre Dame can jump Minnesota as well.
There is a chance that Notre Dame, Penn State, Michigan and Minnesota can tie with 36 points – in that case, the first tiebreaker is Big Ten wins. In the 36-all scenario, Minnesota and Penn State would each have 11 wins, while Notre Dame would have 10 and Michigan would have 9. Therefore, Minnesota and Penn State would finish T2, with Notre Dame at 4th hosting Michigan in 5th. The second tiebreaker is winning percentage among tied teams, and at that point Minnesota’s 1-3 record vs Penn State would mean the Nittany Lions moving into the #2 spot.
However, the most likely scenario is that Michigan and either Notre Dame or Penn State move past Minnesota in next week’s action. If that were to happen, the Gophers would most likely host the team on the short end of the ND-PSU matchup.
The end goal of every team at this point of the season is just surviving to take a shot in the NCAA tournament. In order for Minnesota to make it, they need to win the Big Ten tournament, which would probably consist of winning a best-of-three series at home, then winning a single-game on the road the following weekend to make the championship game, before winning that final game on the road the weekend after. This Gopher team hasn’t won four straight all year so color me skeptical, but hockey is a funny game and it’s possible this team is peaking at the right time. Minnesota has at least a .500 record this season against every Big Ten team except Michigan State and Penn State, and the Gophers probably won’t have to face those teams on the road throughout the tournament.