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Gophers Hockey: On golden uniforms and gold-medal defense

Minnesota earned its second straight sweep at Mariucci Arena, defeating Michigan in a pair of games to climb back into Big Ten title race and keep NCAA Tournament hopes alive.

Matt Christians

The Gophers have looked golden the last two weekends in a way the team hasn't lately and it's not because of the sweaters.

Those don't hurt. Minnesota is admittedly having fun and doing so while emphasizing the second color in maroon and gold. The team's colorful third sweaters finally made an appearance for the first time in 2014-15 against Ohio State on February 7th. They came back last Saturday against Michigan. Both capped off sweeps at Mariucci Arena and a 5-0-1 run that has Minnesota tied for first place in a suddenly interesting Big Ten race down the stretch.

If Seth Ambroz had his way, they would come out more often.

"Yeah, I really wish we had busted those out a lot earlier" the senior forward told SB Nation College Hockey after defeating Ohio State 6-2 to get six points on a weekend and a sweep for the first time in three months. "Those are fun jerseys to wear. It was nice to get those out for once."

It's odd to see Gopher hockey take so long to wear the third sweaters, which were a consistent part of the team's postseason run to the 2014 National Championship Game, just as it has been to see the preseason favorites struggle over the last two months to stay in the hunt for 2015.

By the end of last weekend, the flashiness of the gold at Mariucci felt back in place, as did hearing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" to signal a sweep.

"We had two good weekends," Minnesota goaltender Adam Wilcox said Saturday. "From the point we were at about a month ago, two months ago, from the outside looking in, I think the guys are pretty happy to be in this position. I think we're tied for first now and in control of our own destiny at this point. I think, along with me and the whole team we've got our game together, we've found our confidence and we kind of got our swagger back."

If the gold sweaters visibly signal a change, however, the key to this weekend's sweep against Michigan came through on a more subtle level. There was no "a-ha!" moment or switch turned on that allowed them to gain confidence and get wins. That's not how things work.

Instead, good defensive play has paid off handsomely. Playing the Wolverines - a team that was 14-3 since November and four weeks prior scored 11 goals against the Gophers in Ann Arbor - Minnesota held the top offense in the nation, one with enough forward scoring depth to fill the deep end of a swimming pool, to just two goals in two games.

The home team did it in two different ways.

Friday's performance, a 6-2 victory, ended up being one where success on offense overshadowed the defense. The goals were there as were Minnesota players getting into defensive lanes, cutting off opportunities in prime scoring areas and made the extra effort to not put Wilcox in a bad position.

Despite a career-high four points Friday, defenseman Mike Reilly, was happier with his contributions on the blue line. Reilly, who leads the team with 32 points, had like several of his teammates at times during a 3-8-2 stretch been guilty of focusing on offense and getting caught.

"We knew they were a fast team and one of the fastest teams probably in the nation. They feed off turnovers and I think that we did well tonight in not turning over the puck too much and letting odd man rushes up," he said. "We got ourselves into trouble a few weeks ago at Yost making those turnovers. So obviously you want to manage the puck well and we were able to do that and not allow too many Grade A chances."

Michigan was more successful with using its speed and getting Grade A chances a night later. JT Compher had a pair of odd-man rushes in the first period. Zach Hyman and Dylan Larkin connected for another shorthanded opportunity in the third period that was saved by Wilcox.

Yet Saturday's performance, one in which the Wolverines were held to 26 shots (9 below their season average entering the weekend), was more impressive and one Minnesota needed to excise the ghosts of an unusually cold January.

Several times since the second half of the season the Gophers have let teams come back from a goal or two-goal deficits to tie or win. A couple more times games were lost in spite of the fact Minnesota out-shot and out-played the opposition. Do it enough and the cycle gets harder and harder to break.

That was the case Saturday. The Mariucci ice was tilted away from blue and maize and towards the gold. Minnesota had out-shot Michigan 25-15 in the first 2 periods, but only had a one goal lead. This story felt familiar. Whether it was the 2-2 tie against Wisconsin where Minnesota out-shot the Badgers 49-20 or the 2-1 loss against Minnesota-Duluth that saw the Bulldogs' first shot of the period 18 minutes in found its way past Wilcox, puck possession, low scoring and defense had not equated a win lately.

That it did is something the team needed. And that's the point.

"It's a good one to have and it's good for Adam that he was able to close it out," Lucia said after Saturday's win and Wilcox's 11th career shutout.

Saturday's 2-0 win didn't come easy with Wolverines goaltender Steve Racine matching save for save bar one. Wilcox was tested in the third period before Kyle Rau scored the empty-net goal to seal the deal. There was no bigger moment than the final minute, making a save on Michigan's Justin Selman that for most of the last month would have meant a tie game.

While Wilcox was on his game, so was the rest of the team defensively.

"We haven't had a shutout in a long time and that was a total team effort," Lucia said.

The sweep was another reminder that the Gophers continue to hold serve at home. You have to go back to the WCHA in March 2013 to find the last time a conference opponent defeated Minnesota at Mariucci. During that time, solid defense has been at a premium in Dinkytown with the Gophers finishing in the top-10 each of the last 3 seasons.

The road doesn't get any easier. The Gophers still have to travel to Penn State and Ohio State. Four teams are within two points of the Big Ten. Minnesota plays six of its remaining eight games against the Nittany Lions, including a pair this weekend in State College, and Michigan State, each of whom are 2 points behind the Gophers and Michigan. An at-large NCAA Tournament bid is still in play too.

"We're a good team and we have the ability to do great things," said Ambroz, a week later wearing the gold jerseys again. "We just have to buy in and do the little things right and do whatever it takes to win."

The throwback wasn't the sweaters. It was solid defense. That's another one Minnesota may not have busted out earlier, but would like to keep in the weekly arsenal down the stretch.

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