MINNEAPOLIS- Don Lucia had a message for his team entering Big Ten conference play: bring your lunch buckets.
Minnesota (8-4-0, 0-0-0-0 Big Ten) ends the first half of its season by opening the 20 game conference schedule on the road against Michigan State (5-8-0, 1-1-0-0 Big Ten). Lucia's club will be idle after this weekend until hosting the Mariucci Classic January 2-3, 2015.
The Gophers, ranked fifth in the SB Nation College Hockey Power Rankings, are defending Big Ten regular season champions. So far the quest to retain has seen ups and downs going against the 8th toughest schedule, according to KRACH. If the season ended today Minnesota, which was a unanimous preseason pick to win the conference in the SB Nation poll, would be the only Big Ten team to make the NCAA Tournament.
Despite that, the team refuses to take anything lightly coming off a weekend where Minnesota dominated Boston College 6-2 and lost to 3-10-1 Northeastern 3-2 to enter conference play on a 1-3 skid.
"We were projected to do pretty well this year. Obviously things haven't turned out as we would like, but that's behind us. We take these games a game at a time," said Ben Marshall (Detroit Red Wings) about entering conference play.
"When it comes down to it when we are playing those non-conference teams we have to win. The difference now is just conference play, there's a different title. It doesn't matter who we are playing. We have to go out and give a hard effort. I think this week we've have a good week of practice these past couple days so we'll be ready."
The weekend games against the Spartans, who are coming off a disappointing split against 2-7-1 Princeton, is the first opportunity to set the pace in year 2 of the Big Ten. MSU went 2-0-2 in year 1 against the Gophers, winning a pair of shootouts that officially count as ties and keeping Minnesota within a goal in all four games. Only once were the Gophers able to score more than two goals.
The Spartans offense this season has not yet matched junior goaltender Jake Hildebrand's play in net although is beginning to find its way with Matt Berry and Michael Ferrantino each having seven goals.
For all the B1G's struggles in 2014-15 - the Gophers hold the only two wins against NCHC teams (the rest are a combined 0-9) - it gives added importance to winning the conference and maintaining a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. (Minnesota is currently 7th.)
Due to the fact there are only six schools no one has played more than two conference games entering the third month of the college hockey season.
It's a unique setup, but one which emphasizes the point of getting off to a good start.
"As we head into this weekend let's our bring our lunch buckets," Lucia said. "I think we need to work a little harder than we have from an offensive standpoint."
To do so, the Gophers are going to back to the basics. Lucia is planning to only use 8 penalty killers and emphasized getting multiple chances at even strength. Minnesota is 16th in the country (out of 59 teams) averaging 2.08 goals per game, which is nearly half a goal less than 2013-14's national runner up.
One thing that may help is getting back senior forward Travis Boyd (Washington Capitals). Boyd, who has three goals and five points in five games, has been out since October 31 with a lower body injury. He has been practicing and with the extra month off on the other side of the series, there's a good chance he makes the trip.
"We're hoping we can get some time out of him this weekend," Lucia said.
Last weekend Minnesota scored 5 even strength goals against Boston College while getting none in Saturday's loss.
It's not the only lesson.
"That game against Northeastern we came out a little soft, we made a lot of mistakes and ultimately beat ourselves," sophomore forward Vinni Lettieri said. "That first game (against Boston College) it was a good game to look back on and try to play like more often."
Friday's game begins at 6:00 p.m. CT and airs nationally on Fox College Sports Central. Locally in the Twin Cities it will air on tape delay (approximately 10-10:30 after the Minnesota Wild game) on Fox Sports North Plus. Saturday's game begins at 4:00 p.m. CT and will air live on Fox Sports North Plus.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate