This weekend Minnesota plays its 25th game of the season. The fifth month of games of what increasingly has become a marathon 2014-15 season will begin with only the second home series against a conference opponent.
To put that in perspective, the Gophers (12-9-3, 3-2-3-0 Big Ten), facing Ohio State on Friday (8:12 p.m. CT) and Saturday (7:00 p.m. CT), at the end of this weekend will match the number of games at Mariucci Arena against B1G Hockey opponents that it has played already in total against non-conference Minnesota-Duluth.
Bless you basketball-style Big Ten schedule.
With 8 of Minnesota's final 12 regular season games being played within the comforts of Dinkytown, any late charge by head coach Don Lucia's team is going to happen in front of a maroon and gold partisan crowd. That could be a good thing for the Gophers beginning with this weekend's series against Ohio State.
"If you look back I think since mid-November we've only had 5 home games. We've had a long stretch on the road, but now we have to take care of business at home," Lucia said Wednesday.
Minnesota has played its best hockey at home this season, going 7-2-1 at Mariucci Arena. With the rest of the season being all in conference, it's important for the Gophers, currently in fourth place with 12 points (games are worth 3 points apiece), 9 behind 1st place Michigan (both the Wolverines and 2nd place Michigan State each have a game in hand), to get some steam going and have a six point weekend or two.
It has been almost three months since the Gophers have finished off a sweep.
"That's huge for our team, not being able to get back-to-back wins in quite a while or two wins in a weekend," said senior forward Travis Boyd. "You're not going to win that tournament. You're not going to move on in the NCAA Tournament without winning back-to-back games. It has to be done."
While there were some positive signs, including a pair of sophomores getting back on the score sheet against Wisconsin - Taylor Cammarata went 19 games without a goal before scoring Friday - it didn't get six points against a two-win Badgers team.
Simply put, Minnesota knows that it needs to get some home sweeps for both the Big Ten and if it has any chance to reach the NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid. Minnesota is 19th in the Pairwise, which mimics the criteria used to determine at-large bids. With the Big Ten down in non-conference play this year and only Michigan (14th) higher in the Pairwise, it's going to take somewhere between 8 and 11 wins to be in without winning 2-3 games in Detroit.
(Highly recommend clicking on that link as Jim Dahl goes in-depth, playing out all the scenarios with all teams.)
It's technically possible - even with 6 games against Penn State and Michigan - but the bottom line is something we've known for a while. Time is running out for the Gophers, 3-5-2 since January 2nd, to turn things around.
"We need to win some games and hopefully we can continue to do that," said Lucia.
Connor Reilly out indefinitely
Lucia updated the media on Connor Reilly's status after the redshirt sophomore left Saturday's game following a nasty knee on knee hit with Wisconsin's Corbin McGuire. Reilly, who leads the team with 11 goals, officially remains out indefinitely with a lower body injury.
The news was first reported Monday by Jason Gonzalez of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Reilly will be re-evaluated in a month to see how the healing process goes and if he needs surgery. There's the possibility he can return before the end of the season
It's a major loss for both Minnesota and Reilly, who lost the entire 2012-13 season with a major knee injury before it even began.
"Obviously that's a big blow. He's a guy who can put the puck in the back and the net and obviously you feel bad for him because he's just getting his game back from where it was when he had the previous surgeries," senior Seth Ambroz said about Reilly. "It's a big blow because he's a great shooter, especially on the power play there. We'll have to have some guys step up and fill in those roles, which I think we have the ability to do."
McGuire for his part was rightly suspended a game by the Big Ten. He wasn't kicked out of Saturday's game, however, and after serving a five minute major went on to score the winning shootout goal. I'll have more tomorrow or Friday about Lucia's thoughts on video replay and utilizing it like college football to decide whether plays are worth game misconducts or not.
A defenseman playing forward?
It could happen for Minnesota, but not this week.
Having Reilly out for the foreseeable future means the Gophers will be forced to continue to try new lines. Lucia mentioned the possibility of having a blue liner playing up front on his radio show Monday. He discussed it further Wednesday without naming names as to who would make the leap.
"We'll keep the guys back there," he said about the defense this weekend against the Buckeyes. "It's something we kind of have in the back pocket if you want to do it. The bottom line is you'd like to have your best 18 skaters on the rink."
Minnesota spent much of 2012-13 trying to fit 8 defensemen into 6 spots on the blue line. For much of that season, defensemen Justin Holl and Jake Parenteau were effectively forwards who dabbled on the penalty kill. (Holl of course went back to being a shut down D and became a Gopher folk hero last April, but chances are if clicked on this you already knew that.) Current leading scorer Mike Reilly, then a freshman, also played a game or two in that role.
This season the team has eight eligible defensemen - nine if you include transfer Nick Seeler - that are all drafted, but haven't used one as a forward. On a few occasions Minnesota has gone with 11 forwards and 7 defensemen.
If a defenseman was going to play in a forward role, Lucia said they would spend the week practicing as a forward first. That wasn't the case this week. All the eligible ones were practicing defense.
Reilly being out very likely also means A.J. Michaelson gets back in the lineup against the Buckeyes. The junior has been a mainstay, but ended up being a coaches' decision healthy scratch this weekend. He was scratched in place of Ryan Reilly on Friday. Saturday, the Gophers kept Ryan Reilly and went with 11 forwards and 7 defensemen, which became 10 when the other Reilly twin was injured. I thought Ryan, for his part, played well enough against Wisconsin to earn a spot for at least another game on the fourth line, but that is just my opinion. There are no guarantees that happens this week.
Besides Connor (obviously), everyone is healthy physically.
Ohio State also reeling on the injury front
The Buckeyes come into the weekend spending an idle week reeling with a bit of everything.
Like Minnesota, OSU has had to put players in different situations because of injuries and sickness. Darik Angeli and Matt Johnson, who missed the team's last series, are expected to be back while senior forward Chad Niddery will be out against the Gophers. Senior captain Tanner Fritz is questionable because of illness and hasn't been practicing, according to head coach Steve Rohlik.
"I haven't seen Tanner Fritz since last Thursday. I'm not sure if he's going to make the trip," he said earlier today.
In addition, freshman forward Matthew Weis will miss Friday's game because of a one-game suspension earned in Ohio State's last game on January 24th. Weis got Michigan State captain Michael Ferrantino with a hit to the head.
For being a conference with six teams, it sure seems like Big Ten director of officials Steve Piotrowski has been kept as busy as one with twice that.
Still, the injuries are not something that will make Minnesota look at Ohio State lightly. If anything, the Gophers know how OSU feels. Lucia made sure to single out sophomore forward Nick Schilkey, one of 4 players with 14 points, and leading goal scorer Anthony Greco as two players his team needs to watch out for this weekend.
"We had some real tight, close games with them last year. They knocked us out of the Big Ten tournament last year. Their goaltending is back," Minnesota's head coach said about Ohio State, which it went 3-1-1 against in 2013-14. "They basically have their D core intact from last year.
"Bottom line for us is that we have to respect their top players."
Game Times/TV/Radio/Streaming Info
Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis, MN
Time: 8:12 p.m. CT
TV: BTN (assuming Dan Kelly and Ben Clymer are calling again)
Radio: 1500 ESPN Twin Cities (Frank Mazzocco and Wally Shaver)
Time: 7:00 p.m. CT
TV: Fox Sports North+ & STO (Doug McLeod and Ben Clymer)
Radio: 1500 ESPN Twin Cities (Frank Mazzocco and Wally Shaver)
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate