The Gophers are just halfway through their second Big Ten season, and their series this weekend may be one of the most critical they’ve had to date.
A sweep against the Ohio State Buckeyes propelled the Gophers back into the postseason picture tied for No. 13 in the PairWise, but now the team hosts the top ranked offense in the country: the Michigan Wolverines.
The Wolverines are first in the Big Ten standings and completed a sweep against the Gophers in Ann Arbor earlier in the year, but a sweep this weekend for the Gophers would pull them even with the Wolverines in the standings.
“Huge weekend for us,” senior forward Travis Boyd said. “Being able to get them at home here, I think we owe them a little bit of revenge for when we went to Ann Arbor.”
Here are four other storylines entering the weekend against the Wolverines for the Gophers, starting with the team’s plan for slowing down the nation’s No. 1 attack.
1. Big Test for Defense
Boyd tried to be nice about it, but he made one thing clear when meeting with the media Wednesday: the Wolverines and the Buckeyes are a different match-up.
“Not to rip on Ohio State, but Michigan has a little bit more offensive talent than they do. So if we kind of give up some of the chances we did last weekend some of those might be in the back of our net.”
When asked what makes the Wolverines so dangerous, Boyd said it was the team’s speed.
“They’re a fast team,” Boyd said. “If we’re not smart with the puck and we don’t manage the puck they’ll counterattack and be at our net in three or four seconds. We’ve got to be smart with the puck and really watch out for their speed and for their depth.
Head coach Don Lucia said the team will have to keep a third man high to try to limit the Wolverines. Unlike the team’s first two match-ups, Lucia is hoping to avoid a shootout.
“We’re not going to outscore Michigan, we have to out defend them,” Lucia said.
2. Wilcox vs Wolverines
The last time junior goaltender Adam Wilcox skated between the pipes against the Wolverines, things didn't go well.
Wilcox gave up nine goals in two starts before being pulled for freshman Nick Lehr during the second period of the Gophers second game in Ann Arbor.
The former Second Team All-American has struggled recently this season, but against Ohio State Wilcox allowed only two goals per night.
"Yeah, I thought he was more consistent and that’s what we have to have," Lucia said. "The bottom line is we don’t ask him to be perfect. We just keep telling him if you can give up two that’s going to give us a great opportunity to win games."
Of course, giving up just two against the Wolverines is easier said than done.
"We saw signs last weekend that his play was improved," Lucia said. "He made a couple big saves. We’re so used to Adam always making the big save and he’s going to have to make some big saves this weekend because they’re going to be able to get their opportunities too and he’s got to be able to shut the door."
3. Power Play Opportunities
Forced to adjust some combinations with redshirt sophomore Connor Reilly out of the lineup, the Gophers managed to score five power play goals over the weekend.
Lucia said the Gophers will have to build on that success this weekend against Michigan, because last series they didn't get many opportunities on the power play. In Ann Arbor, each team gave up seven penalties total over the weekend. The Gophers average five penalties a game, while the Wolverines average 4.4.
"Last time we played Michigan, there wasn’t many power plays either way," Lucia said. "You play somebody, you respect their unit, they respect our unit, you’re going to do everything you can to stay out of the box. You get a couple chances, hopefully you can convert on them."
4. Fasching, Cammarata Flashing
After last weekend's sereis against the Ohio State Buckeyes, Lucia singled out sophomore forwards Hudson Fasching and Taylor Cammarata for their play.
On Wednesday, it was more of the same.
"The way Hudson pulled a puck off the boards and walked out front and scored, we hadn’t seen that in a while," Lucia said.
Fasching scored the goal in the first period of Saturday's game against Ohio State, putting the Gophers up 2-0 and giving them a cushion they needed minutes later when an Ohio State dump into the Gophers zone deflected off the back boards, off of Wilcox's pad and into the net.
Fasching has not been able to improve on his 30 point freshman season so far this year, but Lucia seems to think he's on the right track.
And the same could be said for Cammarata. After recording three assists and no goals in a 14 game stretch from the Minnesota-Duluth series until the North Star Cup, Cammarata has recorded six points (one goal, five assists) in the team's last four games.
"It’s no coincidence that all of a sudden we haven’t lost in those four games," Lucia said.
If Fasching and Cammarata can join senior forward Seth Ambroz in reviving their seasons, the Gophers may start to resemble the team they were on paper at the beginning of the year.