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Gophers Hockey: Big Ten play kicks off a second chance to start the year

Minnesota plays Ohio State in a two-game series this weekend at Mariucci Arena. It is the Big Ten opener for both teams, which have struggled in non-conference play.

Is the net half-empty or half-full this year?
Is the net half-empty or half-full this year?
Matt Christians/SBN College Hockey

If the beginning of Big Ten play represents a second chance to start this season, Minnesota likely would want a do-over on part one.

So would most of the Big Ten while we're at it. Conference play means the teams get that opportunity although that second chance comes at a price for a Gophers team trying to win its fifth straight conference regular season title.

The Gophers opened 2015-16's non-conference play with 11 straight games in which head coach Don Lucia's team went 4-7-0, finding stability in between the growing pains of opening and closing three-game losing streaks. Minnesota's search for consistency was one of the few consistencies it has had with a pair of blown third period leads, having a 2-5 home record and being swept for the first time at home in over four years.

Still, the team believes that there has been some progress prior to Friday's Big Ten opener against Ohio State (3-9-0, 0-0-0-0 Big Ten) at Mariucci Arena.

"I think over the course of the course of the season so far we've taken some strides as a team and have grown a lot. I think we still have plenty of room to grow, but we're getting there. I think it's close," defenseman Jake Bischoff said after Sunday's 7-4 loss to St. Cloud State.

To be fair, this is not the same team as the one which began the year. Minnesota has stated entering the season that this would be a marathon, not a sprint. Despite some struggles, there have been signs of players putting it all together.

The Gophers will get that chance in the Big Ten. Thanks to schedule-makers, the six-team Big Ten's 20 games of conference play do not begin until early December. Teams go off and do its own thing, ignoring the rest of the conference rivals. In-state foes, old friends, new friends, and anyone else get attention in the season's first half.

By now Lucia is used to this schedule. Nothing has changed in his preparation from Year 1 to Year 3.

The same is true for his players.

"We like to approach every game the same. We like to focus on how we need to play to win. Every opponent is different," said sophomore defenseman Ryan Collins. "We're excited to have a clean slate. We learned a lot in non-conference play. It's exciting to get into conference play."

Playing this schedule does give teams an opportunity to find one another with points not being on the line.

Unfortunately for Minnesota, the schedule does not wash away a losing non-conference record. Those games hold a different importance, one which gets brought up more often these days. Coaches and players have been more aware and open each passing year about a rankings process that begins with a "P" and decides the NCAA Tournament at-large seeds. It comes up in the preseason now. It comes up after non-conference games.

Those losses do add up.

"In non-conference the way the Pairwise set up - and again we're so focused week to week on getting better right now we not real worried about those things - it's just big for a lot of reasons ", said Minnesota State head coach Mike Hastings last month after defeating Minnesota. The Mavericks' lone non-conference win this season came after the WCHA leaders were swept by Nebraska-Omaha and St. Cloud State.

At the same time, how the other Big Ten teams fare matters.  Doing well in non-conference as a conference helps everyone. In year 1 Minnesota's 9-2-1 fast start in non-conference play helped buoy the team to the #1 overall ranking in the NCAA Tournament with Wisconsin also grabbing a #1 seed.

This year has been closer to year 2 where the conference outside of Minnesota struggled in non-conference games.

In some ways the play has been worse. It was going to be hard to top the Big Ten's 2-14 record against the NCHC (going 2-5, the Gophers had both wins), but lo and behold the conference did. The Big Ten is 1-14-1 this year following the Gophers going 0-4 against UMD and SCSU. (In comparison, Minnesota went 4-1-1 against the NCHC in 2013-14 with NCAA Tournament wins over St. Cloud State and North Dakota.)

Only Michigan and Penn State have a winning record entering conference play. Take away a dominant 12-2-1 record against Atlantic Hockey opponents and the Big Ten is 17-30-10 overall.

While the Pairwise rankings are nowhere near being set, it does not help Minnesota (currently 37th - third of the six B1G schools - and only having faced one team in the current top 20) that facing the same low-ranked opponents towards the end of the season makes it harder to move up in them. The Gophers found that out last season when only the Wolverines and Minnesota, which had to go on an 11-3-0 late season run, were near an at-large bid.

Minnesota and Ohio State play Friday and Saturday. Both games are at 7:00 p.m. CT. Friday's game will be televised on Fox Sports North (Doug McLeod and Ben Clymer) and Saturday's will be broadcast by ESPNEWS (Clay Matvick and Sean Ritchin).


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 --