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Gophers Hockey: Returning to Big Ten play, Minnesota struggling for answers & success against in-state foes

Struggles in non-conference play came back to bite Minnesota last weekend after finishing the North Star College Cup in fourth. The Gophers, with success in Big Ten play and an uphill climb to make the NCAA Tournament, return this to Big Ten play this weekend against Penn State.

Matt Christians/SBN College Hockey

ST. PAUL- Before the weekend began, Hudson Fasching said that his Minnesota team was fully aware of the struggles it had against in-state opponents. It was the first thing that came out of his mouth. They were aware of the 1-10 record, the last place finish in the North Star College Cup a year ago.

And yet, being aware was not the answer. The Gophers ended this past weekend in a rerun of 2014, down to standing angry and disappointed outside the same locker room, and being asked the same post-game questions.

Minnesota finished with a pair of losses in the in-state tournament for the second straight season.

"It sucks. That's the bottom line. We're not happy right now. There are no excuses, there's nothing we can do about it," Fasching said after Sunday's 3-2 defeat to Minnesota State. "We don't want to be here right now, but it is what it is."

The team finds itself struggling for answers as to why the Gophers have been on the losing end against in-state teams lately. From the beginning of the 2013-14 season to November 1, 2014, Minnesota went 10-2-1 against the four other schools in the "State of Hockey" with Division 1 men's hockey teams. Since that time, the Gophers are 1-12-0 (1-7 this year) and have lost to all four Minnesota schools.

Minnesota captain Justin Kloos does not have an answer for why that is the case.

"Good question. I don't know," he said. "I'm not going to sugarcoat it. It's embarrassing. I couldn't feel more disappointed and more frustrated after this weekend. It's not like we take these games lighter than other games. We have these games marked on our calendar, as I assume they do too."

Traditionally dominant in-state, the Gophers' success has waned with its perception this year.

The five schools in Minnesota have been collectively successful over the past two seasons, which is something Gopher head coach Don Lucia is happy to mention as part of the growth of the state. He's not wrong.

Four of the five made the 16 team NCAA Tournament. (A season before that, St. Cloud State and Minnesota met for a 2014 Frozen Four berth.) Two of the three western conference were won by Minnesota schools with all three being led by "State of Hockey" teams this year beginning with the NSCC champion and #2 Huskies. Similarities are rampant enough where school intro videos are interchangeable.

That doesn't help answer why there has been such an 180 degree turn, however.

"We always have had a target on our back. As to why it's (been a struggle) recently, I guess I couldn't tell you. It's not fun," said Fasching, adding his performance in practices late in the week were not up to his high standards. "It's getting to a point where it's getting extremely frustrating."

In a college hockey world where players are only as good as their last game, good stretches of play are bookmarked by crushing blows to Minnesota schools. Those hurt. They aren't trying to make excuses or tell themselves in the usual way following a loss that a rematch would be different.

This year the Gophers are in the same position as a year ago. After sitting 20th in the Pairwise rankings that determine the NCAA Tournament at-large bids a season ago and needing to go on an 11-3-1 run before the Big Ten championship to ensure it would make an at-large bid, Minnesota is currently 20th. The difference between an at-large bid and fighting to get in at the end of the year could easily come down to those in-state non-conference games.

"I don't know what it is about us playing in-state rivalry," said Vinni Lettieri. "To fall behind and not to win these games it hurts us too.

"Every game is important now. We have to take it one practice and one game at a time. These first two games (against Penn State Friday and Saturday) are big because Penn State is such a good team, they've been improving a lot since they started as an organization for hockey, and we have just got to keep improving too."

With a tie for the Big Ten lead with Michigan and games at home against the Wolverines and third-place Nittany Lions (both of whom are ahead of the Gophers in the Pairwise), the road is a little easier than a season ago when the Big Ten struggled to get a team in position for an at-large bid. The margin is thin, as Lucia has mentioned several times throughout the season.

Lettieri believes his line needs to produce more in order to complement Kloos, who has goals in seven straight games, and Fasching's different lines. Steve Johnson is trying to forget last weekend's results and use the week of practice to be prepared better.

That doesn't mean it gets any simpler. The Nittany Lions are in a similar position. PSU is 3-4 since defeating Minnesota in overtime, but are currently on a season-long 3 game losing streak were swept by Michigan in its last series

"I think this is the biggest week of the year for us," PSU redshirt senior Eric Scheid told SB Nation College Hockey. "You never want to get swept in a home series. Unfortunately we have to find a way to move past that and look forward to this weekend because with this weekend we're going on the road to Minnesota and that's huge. They had a tough weekend as well so we're two teams that are really fighting for our lives. "

Regardless, Minnesota's struggles raise the question whether it is better to be successful against in-state schools or in the Big Ten. Based on perception and reaction throughout the state, the Gophers need to fix the former before getting respect for the latter.

The answer will have to wait until next year barring a strong finish. For the rest of the season the team is back to playing in the Big Ten, a place where Minnesota's captain may have found one answer.

"Looking at our history right now the big thing with conference series right now is that you get revenge that second night if you lose the first night on Friday or Saturday or whatever," said Kloos, reflecting on the differences between a tournament and conference play. "So we have revenge to get on all these teams because they've been kicking our butt lately."

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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 --