Gophers Hockey: Minnesota looking to win Big Ten regular season title, make history at Michigan

Kye Rau (7) captains a Minnesota team playing for its 3rd consecutive regular season title - Matt Christians - SB Nation

A win in the final weekend would give the Gophers the first-ever Big Ten regular season championship. It's something the players want to see through.

Throughout its long and storied history, Minnesota has never won three straight regular season titles. Three times it has gone back to back, but the dream of a third went unreached. The Gophers have the chance to change that this weekend against Michigan and, in the process, clinch the first-ever Big Ten regular season championship.

Minnesota (24-4-6, 13-2-3-0 Big Ten) leads second-place Wisconsin by five points entering a pair of road games with the Wolverines. Friday's game begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on ESPNEWS while Saturday's finale starts at 7:00 p.m. ET on BTN.

A win or any combination of two points won by Minnesota or dropped by Wisconsin, which travels to Michigan State for the final weekend before the Big Ten Tournament, gives the Gophers the title.

"I think it's just a special accomplishment," junior forward Travis Boyd said. "There's only one first-time winner of the regular season championship so it'd be a good chance to go down in the history books and you can go look back at 10 years down the road and say ‘I was on that team. I was a part of that.'"

The Big Ten began sponsoring men's hockey in 2013-14. Prior to this season, Minnesota played in the WCHA where it shared the WCHA regular season title with St. Cloud State and won it outright in 2011-12.

Despite repeating last year, 2013-14 brought new challenges to the Gophers besides a change of conference. Being in the mix was no guarantee for head coach Don Lucia, who lost four of the team's top five scorers from last season to the pros.

"It's a goal when the year begins to put yourself into position. You never know how the year is going to unfold, but basically we've had a great regular season and played consistently from start to finish," he said.

The offense continues to thrive - being currently sixth in the nation with 3.48 goals per game - with the help of both a freshman class and depth. Three first-year forwards (Hudson Fasching, Justin Kloos and Taylor Cammarata) have spent most of the season in Minnesota's top six. Each has 21 points on a team that has 8 players above that plateau.

Lately, the Gophers have scored 23 goals in its last six games. For that to continue won't be easy.

Leading scorer Sam Warning missed last Saturday's 2-2 tie against Ohio State and was unable to practice Tuesday. Minnesota, which swept the Wolverines 5-3 and 4-1 in Minneapolis last month, also travels to a barn for the first time since 2009 that Lucia believes, is the toughest place to play in college hockey. Yost Arena dates back to 1923 and the Wolverines are 10-2-2 in games there this season. That total includes wins over Boston College and Wisconsin.

"It's not easy to go to Ann Arbor," Lucia said. "This is our first experience these kids have had and I don't know if there's a more enjoyable place to play on the road in college hockey from an environment standpoint."

Michigan (17-11-4, 9-7-2-1 Big Ten), currently in third place in the Big Ten and trying to make the NCAA Tournament, has motivation besides playing spoiler. Last month's series at Mariucci Arena featured plenty of physical play on the large, Olympic-sized ice sheet. Two Wolverines - Michael Downing and Andrew Sinelli - were suspended a game apiece for separate incidents in Saturday's loss.

Throw in an offense that features the Big Ten's leading freshman point scorer in J.T. Compher and similar to Minnesota's in spreading the points around and Michigan is matched up well in the final regular season series.

Junior Phil Di Giuseppe started to show signs of scoring in the last series against the Gophers. Since then, he has scored six goals in six games.

However, both teams are coming off disappointing Saturdays.

The Gophers were unable to take the title in Columbus. Minnesota came within four minutes of beating Ohio State Saturday before Nick Schileky scored the game-tying goal with 3:50 left in regulation. OSU went on to win the shootout, leaving the Gophers in a position where it still has a bitter taste from coming so close.

"Our goal last weekend was to finish the deal there and finish the job, but we let it slip away in the last period, the last couple minutes. We're going into this weekend feeling the same way," sophomore defenseman Brady Skjei said. "We really want to get that Big Ten championship."

Michigan, meanwhile, routed Michigan State 7-1 on Friday before blowing a 3-1 lead and losing 4-3 Saturday to the Spartans in East Lansing. It's a situation where both teams are looking to re-focus and gain momentum before the single-elimination nature of playoffs begins in full next week.

"It's a huge momentum builder for us coming into the last week of the season," said Fasching, who spent two seasons in Ann Arbor playing for the US Development Program. "Coming into the playoffs we want to be playing the right way. We want to be playing good hockey coming into the playoffs."

Still, next week is next week. Right now the focus is on the Wolverines.

"Being in this situation the last two years helps us out. We're comfortable with being in this situation where we know we have to win a couple of the last games to win the trophy," Boyd said.

"At the same time, I think we learned a pretty good lesson there of what it takes to win at this time of the year. I have 100% faith in our team to get out there and get the job done Friday night in Ann Arbor."

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Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter --

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