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Minnesota vs. Michigan Series Preview: The Big Ten title is on the line

Thursday and Friday's games at Mariucci Arena feature two teams separated by a point in the standings. Both games are televised nationally on BTN.

Defenseman Michael Brodzinski (20) has a career high 18 points this season.
Defenseman Michael Brodzinski (20) has a career high 18 points this season.
Matt Christians/SBN College Hockey

They won't say it explicitly. Not with games remaining. They know they need a short memory for every weekend is important. They know they need to string together a strong finish to make the NCAA Tournament.

To begin the stretch run after a week off means Minnesota returns refreshed with two games that can make or break a year filled with emotional moments.

"There's no situation we haven't faced this season and at this point we've had as much heartbreak as any team in the country," Gopher junior Justin Kloos said.

This weekend is Michigan weekend and it will likely decide the Big Ten regular season champion.

Minnesota (16-13-0, 11-3-0-0 Big Ten) faces off against the Wolverines at Mariucci Arena on Thursday and Friday in a rematch of last year's Big Ten tournament championship game.

Two months ago the Gophers went to Ann Arbor leading Michigan (19-4-5, 9-2-3-2 Big Ten) by one point in the standings. It left with the lead following a series split. (Teams earn three points for a regulation/OT victory, two points for a shootout win and one for a shootout loss.) The Wolverines return remaining in the same spot, trailing Minnesota by one point, despite winning 10 of 12 games since last seeing the Gophers.

Penn State, with two games in hand over the Wolverines and Gophers, sits 3 points behind Michigan in third place in the standings. The top two teams earn Thursday byes in the Big Ten tournament.

Ranked #6 in the country, Michigan is easily the highest-ranked team the Gophers face over the final three weeks. Michigan has only dropped four games all season. Minnesota remains the last team to defeat the Wolverines in regulation.

One reason for Michigan's success has been the emergence of the "CCM" line of freshman Kyle Connor (2015 Winnipeg Jets first round pick), JT Compher (Colorado Avalanche) and Tyler Motte (Chicago Blackhawks). Motte's 28 goals in 28 games lead the nation while Connor has been the consensus top freshman in the country.

"Both of us are a little different since then," said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. "We moved our lines a little and they have. At this point we don't have a dominant line like they do. Not many teams in college hockey do."

Minnesota, meanwhile, has the fourth-highest scoring offense in the nation since January 1st thanks to several different players, including Kloos and fellow juniors Hudson Fasching, Connor Reilly and Taylor Cammarata , rediscovering their offensive games.

The Gophers had a week off to rest and reflect on the stretch run. Friday and Saturday were mandatory days off, said Lucia. Kloos said the team also used the off week as an opportunity to stay on schedule for the series (both games will be broadcast nationally on BTN).

"We kind of turned it into a normal week with practicing on Sunday to get the normal four days of practice in, but obviously when you get to this point in the season it gets to be a grind,' he said. "Having a week off before such a big series is going to help us, but we have to stay sharp."

The games are intense, offensive firefights. They are entertaining affairs between the top of the new Big Ten.

Offense is flashy, however, Minnesota's focus this week, as well as Michigan's, is its need to play the defense it needs to be successful this weekend and throughout the stretch run.

"We need good strong goaltending every night. We were able to win the special teams (in Ann Arbor Saturday). We scored a couple power play goals that night and we managed the puck a lot better than we had the first night. That's the way we have to play," said Lucia.

See, Minnesota has more on the line. While this weekend likely decides the Big Ten regular season title, the series will play a big role in whether the Gophers can stay in the hunt for an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament. There aren't too many misfires left.

A lost weekend at Mariucci is likely to mean a lost opportunity to control two destinies.

"Obviously if we find a way to win the Big Ten we're probably going to put ourselves in a decent spot for the Pairwise. This weekend's is huge. Michigan's obviously siting the best of the Big Ten teams in the Pairwise. We have one win against them," said Kloos. (The Wolverines are currently sixth and a lock to return to the tournament after a three-year absence.) "If we're able to come out with a couple wins this weekend - I don't know how the Pairwise works exactly - that might put us in a situation where we can have a slip-up in the conference tournament.

"We're not too focused about that right now. We just have to find ways to win games. If it comes down to winning the conference tournament then that's just the challenge we're going to have to live with."

The players know that although are trying to focus on the task at hand. It's the experience of having been there. The Gophers know the embarrassing feeling of getting scored on in quick succession. They know the experience of coming back the next night to win.

"When we get out there with a minute left we're not worried about screwing it up because we've already screwed it up before," admitted Kloos. "Every situation I don't think will bother us coming in. Going through some of that adversity will help us in the long run."

"Just the facts" Preview:

Records: Minnesota (16-13-10, 11-3-0 Big Ten) with 33 points, Michigan (19-4-5, 9-2-3-2 Big Ten) with 32 points

Rankings: #6 Michigan and #20 Minnesota

Game times:

Thursday February 25 at 7:30 p.m. CT

Friday February 26 at 8:00 p.m. CT

Location: Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis, MN

TV: BTN both nights

Radio: 1500 ESPN (Twin Cities)

Ticket Specials: SRO Tickets this weekend are $10 and Chuck-A-Puck for Beyonce tickets.

Other: Minnesota will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of the 1976 National Championship team on Friday.


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 --