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Gophers Hockey: On Minnesota getting out of a bad spot & facing Wisconsin

The Gophers return home against its biggest rival 3-6-1 in the last 10 games and have fallen out of an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament following being swept at Michigan. It hopes the long turnaround begins this weekend against Wisconsin.

Seth Ambroz (17) has found success against Wisconsin throughout his Gopher career.
Seth Ambroz (17) has found success against Wisconsin throughout his Gopher career.
Minnesota Athletics

Here's a thing about hitting rock bottom in sports: It's much, much easier to know after the fact.

There are moments, the ones which pop out as being as bad as the end. The ones that reach the point of no return. Those are easy to stop and turn around in the other direction because from now to nowhere there is nowhere else to go but up.

But for every feel-good turnaround story, there's a moment where you can look back later and say this was the darkest hour whether or not anybody else considers it a bad spot.

This weekend at Mariucci Arena features the University of Minnesota playing its biggest Big Ten rival in the University of Wisconsin Badgers. The two-game series is on a weekend where the focus is on celebrating the hockey culture in the state of Minnesota. Friday night's game begins at 8:10 p.m. CT and Saturday's is at 5:00 p.m. CT as part of Hockey Day Minnesota.

At the same time, neither Minnesota nor the neighbors down 94 East have much to celebrate on the ice recently.

"Winning or losing, when you're out of the lineup it's tough especially with an injury," said junior defenseman Brady Skjei (New York Rangers draft pick), who returned to the lineup in last weekend's losses to Michigan and will play against a team he doesn't like. "You just want to be out there playing. When they're struggling a little bit, yeah you feel like you can maybe try to help out as much as you can and it's a little frustrating."

The Gophers (10-7-1, 1-2-1-0 Big Ten) and Wisconsin (2-12-2, 0-2-0-0 Big Ten) have slid from respectively winning the Big Ten regular season and conference tournament in its inaugural season to being the bottom two teams in the conference.

It's hard to think Minnesota, which entered the 2014-15 season with aspirations of returning and winning the national championship game it fell painfully short a year ago, could be in last place, but that's the case this weekend.  In a sports town that has sports seasonal depression, the men's hockey team is fitting in well.

"The biggest lesson (from Michigan) is that we have to be able to close out a game on Friday and Saturday we can't turn over the puck," said redshirt sophomore Connor Reilly. "If we handle the puck and manage the puck and play as a unit of five I think we can be a good team. Until we do that we're just going to have games that we walk away pissed off and disappointed in the loss column."

Being swept by the Wolverines in Ann Arbor was more than a temporary changing of the guards on top of the conference early in the 20 game league schedule. The Gophers would be out of the NCAA Tournament it hopes to return, sitting 15th in the Pairwise which determine the rankings. The team began 2015 in fifth. Starting the year 1-3 and going 3-6-1 since November 9th doesn't help matters.

Right now all six Big Ten teams would be fighting over the autobid to get into the NCAA Tournament.

As dour as things look for Minnesota, however, Wisconsin would happily switch positions. The Badgers are 55th out of 59 teams in the Pairwise and sit in the bottom of most major team categories. Head coach Mike Eaves' team is averaging 1.75 goals per game (54th in nation), giving up 3.62 goals per game (52nd) and struggling on special teams with 11 freshmen replacing many key roles in front of outstanding senior goaltender Joel Rumpel.

"Obviously the first part of the year hasn't gone the greatest," said Badgers junior defenseman Kevin Schulze. "We just have to work out the details, competing, battling in practice and bringing that over to the weekend."

A win against then-#5 Michigan Tech and tying top-five Boston University at home the last two weekends are steps in the right direction for Wisconsin coming back into conference play.

"In some sense, I think the whole of 2015 is a new beginning for us," Wisconsin sophomore forward Grant Besse (Anaheim Ducks) said following the win over Michigan Tech. "We had Penn State at home, which obviously wasn't what we wanted, but I think we're taking the whole start of the new year is a new beginning. So far we've done alright with it."

Minnesota head coach Don Lucia has his focus on the Gophers, but believes the series will also be a test for the Badgers. Lucia indicated that he may make some change with his lines to get more even strength scoring and put players in positions where they can succeed.

More important is Minnesota getting back to playing good defense following a weekend where the Gophers gave up a combined 11 goals in 2 games. The blue line and players up front have been cheating and pinching in to make offense. It has to remain the foundation of the team, according to Lucia.

"We turned (the puck) over way too much last weekend. We left Adam out to dry," Skjei  said about the defense not helping Adam Wilcox (Tampa Bay Lightning), the Gopher goalie who was pulled in the middle of Saturday's 7-5 loss. "We need to be much more stronger defensively."

That could begin this weekend against the Badgers, a team senior Seth Ambroz (Columbus Blue Jackets)has had found fortune against the red and white by lighting the red light. Ambroz has scored 7 goals in 11 career games versus Wisconsin with five of his 14 in 2013-14 coming against the Badgers.

"I get excited to play Wisconsin as everyone does," Ambroz said. "I've been lucky enough to have the puck to go in against these guys. Hopefully it continues to stay that way."

To do so would give Minnesota some well-needed confidence and stem the tide in the final two months of the regular season. This year's team doesn't remind Lucia of any one he has had throughout his long coaching career although that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"The good thing is that these guys care. They're obviously great program guys. They want to have success," Lucia said. "Now we have to do the things that lead to that success."

Returning home and playing well - the Gophers have all 10 conference games at Mariucci - is one way to turn back around, to find that feel-good turnaround for the expectations that haven't changed. Beneath things slipping away is that the end game is a series of tests. This week is the Badgers. Next week is the North Star College Cup with #1 Minnesota State and #2 Minnesota-Duluth. Then it's the Badgers again and a quest to make it to back to the NCAA Tournament.

Minnesota isn't looking to reinvent itself with a new beginning. The Gophers are not Wisconsin in hitting that point of no return.

"You're not going to cure it in one day," said Lucia. "You're not going to go back and win three games in one night. You just have to go do it one day at a time and come to the rink and get better each and every game."

Instead, if things are going to end with expectations met, from both players and fans, it's going to have to start with a moment that makes sense with the hindsight of a God.

Minnesota and Wisconsin play a two-game series at Mariucci Arena Friday (January 16, 2015) and Saturday (January 17, 2015). Friday's game begins at 8:10 p.m. CT and airs on BTN. Saturday's starts at 5:00 p.m. CT as part of Hockey Day Minnesota.


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