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Mariucci Classic has major Pairwise implications for Minnesota

The Gophers return for the second half at home this weekend against Merrimack and either RIT or UMass-Lowell.

Seth Ambroz (17)
Seth Ambroz (17)
Minnesota Athletics

The 24th annual Mariucci Classic kicks off the second half of 2014-15 for Minnesota following a 9-4-1 start that wasn't up to the maroon and gold's expectations for themselves.

It's not as if the Gophers are in a bad position. If anything, it is one of the few to be in a good position from October to January. After three weeks off and 49 days without a home game, the team returns to Mariucci Arena for the four team tournament ranked seventh in the SBN College Hockey Power Rankings and fifth in the Pairwise, the criteria used to determine seeding for the NCAA Tournament. Of the four teams ahead, none were in the conversation to begin the season.

Adam Wilcox (Tampa Bay Lightning) continues to be a constant in the net, having a .923 save percentage and three shutouts on the year. Kyle Rau (Florida Panthers) and defenseman Mike Reilly, who has grown on both ends of the ice, lead the team in scoring with 17 points while Justin Kloos and Mike's brother Connor are tied for the goal lead at 7. Six of the top nine, including a player who missed a month, have at least four goals.

It's just that, in a season where the majority of players return from a national runner-up finish, the fanbase isn't the only ones who are looking for more.

"The first realistically wasn't a bad half. It was a good half based on numbers," senior forward Seth Ambroz said. "But for us we didn't see it as a very good half. We see it as that we have to get better. We have a long ways to go as a team."

Part of the problem has to do with ending the first two months on a 2-3-1 skid which included a sweep by Minnesota-Duluth, a team the Gophers defeated to open the year, a loss to Northeastern and tie and shootout loss that felt like the latter to Michigan State.

To begin, a freshly charged Minnesota, without top-9 forwards Hudson Fasching (Buffalo Sabres) and Leon Bristedt along with defensemen pairing Brady Skjei (New York Rangers) and Ryan Collins (Columbus Blue Jackets) will play Merrimack (10-5-2, 4-4-1 Hockey East)  Friday. All but Skjei, who is out with an upper body injury, are currently in Montreal and Toronto playing in the U-20 World Junior Championship.

UMass-Lowell (12-3-3, 7-0-2 Hockey East) and RIT (5-8-3, 4-5-3 Atlantic Hockey) are the other two teams invited to the Mariucci Classic. The respective winners and losers of Friday's games will face one another Saturday.

The Gophers have 13 Mariucci Classic titles, but have only won the holiday tournament once in the last years. It's a point that doesn't sit well with Travis Boyd (Washington Capitals).

"(The tournament) means a lot because it's our tournament," he said. "We won one, but for us there should be no reason why we don't win this tournament every year. We have our fans, our crowd backing us. For us, it's kind of a pride thing. Teams come into this rink and they shouldn't win. We should be able to win every home game.

"Being the host team it means a lot for us to come out and win; especially because it's going to be an indication of how our second half is going to go how we come out this weekend."

Holiday tournaments can be unpredictable, as head coach Don Lucia noted. Everyone is getting back to speed. That can make for unique results, ones where goaltenders face high scoring games or are able to stop everything after a defense in front of them struggled in the first half (see: Michigan in this year's GLI).

The Gophers have another reason, however, to avoid unpredictability and hoist the Mariucci Classic trophy: the Pairwise Rankings.

Merrimack and (if the two meet) UMass-Lowell represent more than a non-conference game at a holiday tournament. With only four more non-conference games remaining, the two teams are two of the three best teams in the Pairwise that Minnesota will play. The Warriors (14th) and River Hawks (12th) would each be in the tournament if the season ended today.

"They're both really teams and we've had a good schedule. We've had one of the top schedules in the country and we try to do that each and every year," Lucia said. "We have four non-conference games remaining with Merrimack and then there will be a question mark on Saturday. And then for the North Star Cup we have Minnesota State, who obviously is having an outstanding year.

"We'll end up with an outstanding schedule non-conference and the better you can do non-conference, the better it's going to help you overall."

A common refrain is not to pay attention to the Pairwise until Christmas because of the volatile changes a single game can make. Even entering 2015 that has been the case. Minnesota started its three week break 11th in the Pairwise and being idle has been better than playing.

To be fair, the spot is misleading. As Pairwise expert Jim Dahl explains, teams on January 1st are an average of 3-8 spots away from where they finish. Some more, some less. Right now the difference between 5th and 8th is close enough that the Gophers moved up to that based just on Nebraska-Omaha losing to New Hampshire. A single game can make that much of a difference.

The swings are fewer and fewer as the year continues, though. A win and a tie to Michigan State in the first week of December dropped Minnesota two spots despite not officially losing. (A shootout loss counts as a tie for Pairwise purposes and only affects Big Ten standings.)

Then there is St. Cloud State, which is one of three teams that has defeated Minnesota, ending its first half being swept by the same Nebraska-Omaha. The Huskies (6-9-1, 2-5-1-0 NCHC) dropping out of the top 20 (currently 26th) costs the Gophers bonus points for beating a top-20 team. In fact, with St. Cloud State and Boston College (currently 22nd) being outside the top-20 for now, only the season-opening win against Minnesota-Duluth (3rd) is worthy of a "quality win bonus."

That can change this weekend with both Merrimack and Lowell playing well. Win and keep pace. Lose and it will shine a light on playing 18 of the remaining 22 regular season games against 5 Big Ten teams.

Having a strong non-conference schedule - the Gophers have had the eighth-toughest one according to KRACH - and doing well is more important this year with the Big Ten struggling.

With Penn State (24th) falling twice at the 3 Rivers Classic, only Minnesota and Michigan (20th) - being done with non-conference play - has a shot at making the tournament as an at-large without help and even then it's going to be tough for the Wolverines. Losing to any team lower (Ohio State is currently 34th, Michigan State is 43rd and Wisconsin is 57th out of 59 teams) is something that will linger from now until March in the Pairwise. The Gophers already have one with a loss to 5-10-1 Northeastern (currently 36th). Same goes with the Spartans (currently 45th) tie.

Conference play is shaping up to have plenty of these chances.

"Once you start getting to the second half of the year the Pairwise rankings come out and all that. Playing big non-conference games against teams helps you at the end of the year and making sure you'er as high as you can possibly be," Boyd said. "The Big Ten may be a little down this year so that kind of means we might not get too many points in the polls for beating those teams. Any time you can beat one of those teams it helps."

The second half will tell the story of the season for Minnesota, a team looking to get the consistency it missed in the aftermath of a national title game appearance. There is plenty on the line. Earning a fourth straight conference championship is one. Another is defending its North Star College Cup title.

To get back back to the NCAA Tournament - and gain that consistency - the path begins at the Mariucci Classic.

The Mariucci Classic kicks off Friday at 4 p.m. CT with RIT and UMass-Lowell playing in the first semifinal. Minnesota and Merrimack play at 7:00 p.m. CT. The two winners and losers will play each other Saturday with the Gophers playing at 7:00 p.m. CT regardless of result.

Minnesota's game Friday will be broadcast on Fox Sports North Plus. Saturday's game is not televised and both Mariucci Classic games not featuring Minnesota will be streamed online for free at GopherSports.com.

Both Minnesota games can be heard online at 1500 ESPN. Frank Mazzocco and Wally Shaver have the call.

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