A month has passed since Minnesota redshirt sophomore Connor Reilly was injured in a knee-on-knee collision with Wisconsin's Corbin McGuire. Initially set to be re-evaluated after a month to see if he could return, the chances of Reilly, who came back from a major knee injury two seasons ago, coming back is seeming less likely with each passing week.
Leading the team in goals when he went down, Reilly has yet to skate or practice with the Gophers since the injury.
"If he doesn't skate for another week or two you're just getting to that point where it would be hard to get thrown in if he can't come back until playoff time," head coach Don Lucia said. "It's hard to be thrown into that type of a situation. So we're hoping that maybe he can be back in this next couple of weeks timeframe, but if we can't get him back before the end of the regular season I think it will be difficult for him to jump back in and play at that point."
Including this weekend's series against Ohio State, Minnesota has four regular season games remaining before the Big Ten conference tournament March 19-21.
Without Reilly, the players in the Gophers' top-9 forwards are set. Although likely to start the same way this weekend, that doesn't mean the lines themselves are set in concrete for the rest of the year, Lucia said.
"When we go on the road can we keep those three seniors (the team's all-senior second line of Sam Warning-Travis Boyd-Seth Ambroz) together? I don't know. That remains to be seen," he said. "That's part of your concern when you do go on the road without the match-up - do you have to split those guys up to give yourself a little more balance on both ends of the rink."
Lucia believes the team's third line of Taylor Camamrata-Justin Kloos-Vinni Lettieri will have to to provide depth down the stretch.
"I think the real key for us is Kloos' line. It doesn't look like Connor will be back anytime soon so that's pretty much our top-9 forwards. I think Kloos' line is going to be the key from here on out for us."
Ohio State is getting healthy
The Buckeyes, meanwhile, have been getting healthy since the last time Minnesota and Ohio State played one another last month and will have everyone available.
A month ago captain Tanner Fritz had spent the week sick before playing while Matt Johnson and Darik Angeli had just returned from injury. OSU will have another player back that didn't play at Mariucci in senior Chad Niddery. Matthew Weis, who was suspended for the first game, will be available for both.
"A much different team and I think you have seen that," Lucia said. "I remember shaking hands on Saturday after Ohio State and I just said to their coaches, 'Steve, now you're going to find out what your team is.' Because they were that week coming into our series they were just getting their guys back. They hadn't really had any practice opportunities with their team.
"Now that those guys are healthy, you get that continuity through practice. And now you're starting to see those results."
The Big Ten series against the fifth-place Buckeyes, which swept Penn State at home and have won the last 3 games at Value City Arena, is just as important as the previous one. At Mariucci, Minnesota turned around its season with a sweep over Ohio State, beginning a five game winning streak to get back into position for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid and Big Ten lead.
This weekend the Gophers enter Columbus 11th in the Pairwise and trailing Michigan by 3 points in the Big Ten standings. (Games are worth 3 points.) Michigan State - playing last place Wisconsin - is only three points back so losses have more of an effect than an at-large tournament bid. The top two teams in the Big Ten get a first-round bye in the conference tournament.
In addition, one more win gets Lucia his 391st, which would be the most in Minnesota history.
Getting off to fast starts
Minnesota has struggled early lately, giving up the first goal in each of the last four games. While the Gophers came back to win two of those - including the five unanswered goals against Michigan State trailing 3-0 on Thursday - playing from behind has become a habit. Digging themselves out of holes is not something they can do every time.
For Seth Ambroz, getting off to a fast start is something that will be a point of emphasis against the Buckeyes.
"Giving up the first goal, you never want to dig yourself in a hole right away. We always have a big stress on those first 10 minutes. You want to be the first team to score obviously, but having a good 10 minute game is huge for us and right now we haven't been able to do that," he said.
The same thing goes for the second night of the series. Against both Penn State and Michigan State, Minnesota was able to win the first night before falling on the second.
"We have to take it one game at a time obviously, but every win is critical now at this time of the year. We have the ability to I think make a really good run here at this end of the season," said Ambroz. "Like you said, we have to put two games on top of each other. We can't be showing up one night and then struggling the next. We haven't been able to bring it that first period. We've been digging ourselves some holes so we have to be able to adjust and figure out what we have to do to be successful.
"Obviously you want to get the win on Friday, but when it comes to Saturday that's - our coaches like to say - that's the championship day. You have to win the first game to get to the second one."
Led by POTY Hannah Brandt, 8 Gopher women's players earn WCHA awards
The WCHA gave out awards and unveiled its all-WCHA teams Wednesday. For the second straight year, Minnesota's Hannah Brandt and Rachel Ramsey received major honors.
Brandt, also named a top-3 finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award on Thursday, was once again named the WCHA Player of the Year, living up to the expectations which came from being the WCHA preseason player of the year.
"I mean it's cool," she said Wednesday. "I guess it just shows what kind of team we have this year that we have players getting all these types of awards. I know it's just not me. I'm sure there are other people who have gotten awards. It's an honor, but it just shows the team we have."
The junior forward has put up 67 points (31G-36A) in 36 games with 50 of those happening in conference play. Only Boston College's Alex Carpenter has more points than Brandt nationally.
Ramsey, a senior defenseman, was named WCHA Defensive Player of the Year. She repeated the honor by getting 31 points (8G-23A) in 37 games and being on a blue line that is fourth in the nation giving up 1.16 goals per game.
Brandt and Ramsey were also both top-10 finalists for the Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the top player in Division 1 women's hockey. The duo is also joined by sophomore Dani Cameranesi.
All three plus redshirt sophomore defenseman Lee Stecklein were named to the All-WCHA first team with Wisconsin's Blayre Turnbull, North Dakota goalie Shelby Amsley-Benzie and Bemidji State goalie Brittni Mowat (the two tied) joining them on the first team.
Junior defenseman Milica McMillen is on the second team, senior forward Rachael Bona is on the third team and freshmen Kelly Pannek and Sydney Baldwin both were named to the WCHA All-Rookie Team.
The Gophers will be going for a record fourth consecutive WCHA Final Faceoff championship this weekend in Grand Forks, ND. Minnesota opens play against Bemidji State in a semifinal Saturday. North Dakota and Wisconsin face off in the other semifinal with the winners playing on Sunday.
Lettieri's brush with celebrity
A pair of Minnesota sophomores met Ariana Grande when she was at Xcel Energy Center this past weekend. Vinni Lettieri has proof...and a kiss.
The sophomore posted his "claim to fame" for all to see and spoke about it Wednesday.
"Lucky enough I did. I asked for that," he said. "Taylor Cammarata and I went with a girl that we know and she hooked it up for us and we were very excited to get our picture taken with Ariana Grande because that's one of the most beautiful girls I've ever seen."
Although currently dating rapper Big Sean, Lettieri is already working on his own case - and soliciting social media help - just in case things don't work between the two.
"If we can get that going so if her and Big Sean break up, just keep spreading that with me and Ariana Grande."
Since Miss Grande, like all famous former teen idols and singers, obviously is a longtime SB Nation College Hockey reader I'm sure she knows Lettieri has eight points (6G-2A) in 30 games and is not afraid to stand up for teammatesor block a shot and come back. She may not know about his fashion style and the time he bought a pair of shoes for a teammate, but that's why she reads this site.
For everyone that isn't Ariana Grande - just remember, aim high.
Romanko reportedly commits to Gophers
Per his Twitter, Minnesota Wilderness (NAHL) forward Darian Romanko committed to Minnesota yesterday.
I am proud to announce my commitment to play hockey at the University of Minnesota! Thanks to family, friends and coaches for your support!— Darian Romanko (@dromanko_22) March 4, 2015
The 20 year-old is from Shoreview, MN and played high school hockey at Mounds View. Listed at 6'1", 195 lbs, Romanko was the NAHL Forward of the Month for February with 17 points (8G-9A). He also was named NAHL Forward of the Month last March.
This year Romanko has 49 points (27G-22A) in 44 games with the Wilderness, good for 11th in the NAHL.
Romanko is the second NAHL forward to commit to Minnesota in as many years following Robin Hoglund. Being 20, he would have to come in next year and would be insurance depending on how the offseason shakes out.
Both games in Columbus this weekend will be on the ESPN family of networks with John Buccigross and Sean Ritchlin calling. Friday's game begins at 4 p.m. CT on ESPNU. Saturday's game is on ESPNEWS beginning at 5 p.m CT.
1500 ESPN should be broadcasting both games. Wally Shaver and Frank Mazzocco will have the call there.
An additional note: I'll be on "This Week in Gopher Sports" on 1500 ESPN after Friday's game discussing with Darren Wolfson both the men's and women's teams and just college hockey in general.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate