clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The regular season now over, the time for Minnesota's "unfinished business" begins now

To make the NCAA Tournament, Minnesota's six seniors likely will have to do something they have so far failed in their college careers: win a conference postseason game.

Minnesota Athletics

DETROIT- There was time to enjoy making history last weekend. Just not too much because a bigger goal remains.

With a 6-2 win over Penn State to complete its first sweep in a month, a group of six Minnesota seniors - forwards Seth Ambroz, Travis Boyd, Christian Isackson, Kyle Rau, and Sam Warning and defenseman Ben Marshall - became the first players in Minnesota school history to win four regular season titles. The group won two in the WCHA and completed the  winning 9 of the final 12 games.

For Rau, who twice last week mentioned his goal of peaking in March and April to win the NCAA title which eluded him last year, the record does not mean a whole lot for the time being.

"Honestly not much. It's cool (to win four regular season titles), but that's not why I came here. That's not why anyone in this locker room came here," he said before the regular season finale. "I'm sure it will be something when I'm older and I'm coming to Mariucci Arena and seeing the banners. I can say I played on those teams. That will probably be about it."

He came around a little more after Saturday's 6-2 clinching win over Penn State, saying "It kind of worked out. A month ago, month and a half ago who would've thought we would be standing here?"

In a way, this year has been a humbling one for everything that has taken the team on the long road paved with personal and self-inflicted adversity. Beginning the season as the Big Ten and Frozen Four champion favorites with 4 players returning with "unfinished business," the Gophers hit rock bottom somewhere between a fourth place finish at the North Star College Cup and a last second tie and shootout loss to a four win Wisconsin team.

Even worse for that game was that Minnesota lost its leading goal scorer at the time, Connor Reilly, for the remainder of the season with a knee injury.

Between the pity and admissions things were not going well and taken for granted, it became obvious a year can't be a cake walk regardless of who returns. No one can rest on fading laurels. That made this Big Ten title different.

"It's more fun when it's not the struggle, but when you see the guys in there winning and look in the locker room - I told this to my boss (associate AD) Tom McGinnis 'that's what makes coaching worthwhile,'" head coach Don Lucia said after Saturday's game. Sometimes we've had to push and prod this group at times over the course of the season, but we've had really good leadership obviously with the senior group that has meant so much."

Since lessons were learned from their own mistakes, the senior class has been leading the way down what is their final stretch.

It began with a Boyd hat trick against Ohio State and ended on their own night, beginning with Ambroz sparking the team with a goal and excitement on the bench. Twenty seconds later Hudson Fasching scored and the Gophers never trailed.

"We were kind of sleepy there for the first. They took it to us and we weren't doing anything," said Ambroz, whose class leads the nation with 32 goals over the last 14 games. "We were able to pop one in there too. I think that's something we needed and fortunate to get the nice bounce."

Still, despite sweeping the Nittany Lions for its first sweep in a month and winning the Big Ten regular season title, the quest to make the NCAA Tournament is still in question. Minnesota could join Colgate in 2006 and Colorado College in 1994 (oddly enough also coached by Lucia) as teams that won major conference regular season titles and missed the postseason. The Gophers currently are 13th in the Pairwise, which mimics the criteria used by the NCAA to select at-large bids.

Simply put, for Minnesota to have a chance at a sixth school NCAA title the "unfinished business" begins this weekend with six wins instead of four. It does not control its own destiny without winning the Big Ten conference tournament. There's a small chance (here's one way it can be done) Minnesota can get in without a win. There are also ways it is out with a win and a Big Ten conference tournament loss.

Going 9-7 in non-conference play wasn't the best way to although Minnesota also got no help from any of its conference-mates. The entire conference struggled. The Big Ten had a combined .412 win percentage against non-Atlantic Hockey teams. Only the Gophers were able to defeat a team in the NCHC, which is on the verge of getting 5 or 6 of its 8 teams in the NCAA Tournament.

The NCHC's NC dominance propped every team up in the eyes of the Pairwise. With 28 of 34 games in conference, the entire slate of teams had the 8 toughest schedules.

In the Big Ten the other 5 teams can only get in with the automatic bid.

Several theories have been put out there concerning the number of non-conference game or the fact back-loading the schedule with conference games hurts younger teams like Michigan State and Michigan. Still, the fact remains Minnesota's will have to do something they have never done: win a postseason conference game. Most likely two.

The last three seasons have all had the same script for the Gophers. Win a regular season title. Lose the Friday game at Xcel Energy Center. Go to the NCAA Tournament.

This time is different. With the conference tournament in Detroit at Joe Louis Arena, there is unfamiliarity. No Gopher player has skated there and Lucia's experience came coaching an all-star squad. Unlike Michigan and Michigan State, Minnesota will have all of 20 minutes to get acclimated.

"It could be somewhat of a home ice or familiarity. We had a good showing at the GLI there," said Michigan head coach Red Berenson, whose team played three games at Joe Louis Arena this season and will have a fourth Friday.

At the very least, there's another celebration and chance to continue to play the best hockey at the end of the season. The season - and for the six seniors, their college careers - depends on it.

"I'm really proud of the guys," Rau said Saturday. "I think we're really growing as a hockey team, catching our stride at the end of the year."

Minnesota plays Ohio State Friday at 3:30 p.m. CT in a Big Ten conference semifinal. The game will be broadcast on BTN. 1500 ESPN has the radio.

-------------------

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 --