Just one point separates the top two teams in the Big Ten — No. 20 Minnesota and No. 6 Michigan — with six games to go.
The two teams play this weekend, and the series couldn’t come at a better time for junior center Justin Kloos.
The Gophers captain leads college hockey in points scored since Jan. 5, and he’s tallied a goal in nine of his last 11 games.
“Things have just kind of been rolling,” Kloos said. “Once you get one to go in, coming off a scoring slump, you gain a little confidence and feel a little more comfortable with the puck on your tape.”
Kloos didn’t have a great start to the year, but he said his play started to improve when the Gophers played Penn State in early January.
He had nine points in his first 17 games, but he has 24 points in the 12 games since.
His surge after winter break now has him tied with junior forward Hudson Fasching for the most points on the team with 33.
“They’re getting on the scoreboard every night,” head coach Don Lucia said. “We need [Kloos] on the scoreboard. We need [Fasching] on the scoreboard.”
Lucia said the Gophers six returning forwards need to be the team’s primary scorers this year, but early on in the season, many were struggling to contribute consistently.
Now, led by Kloos and Fasching, five of Minnesota’s top seven scorers this season are returning forwards.
“If they have a good year, we’ll have a good year. If they struggle, we’ll struggle,” Lucia said. “There were times in the year where we were struggling, and now they seem to be hitting their stride and scoring on a more regular basis.”
Kloos’ offensive outburst has helped keep the Gophers competitive in the Big Ten despite a 5-10 record in nonconference play.
The Lakeville, Minn., native ranks fourth in the conference in points in league games with 23.
Minnesota’s strong record in conference play has pushed it into a tie for 16th in the PairWise Rankings, a system that tries to mimic the NCAA selection process.
“We just got to find a way to keep winning games,” Kloos said. “If it comes down to having to win the conference tournament at the end of the year, that’s just the challenge we’re going to have to live with.”
The Gophers could move even further up the rankings with a strong showing against Michigan, which boasts the highest scoring offense in college hockey.
“We’re not going to beat Michigan 5-4. We’re not going to beat them 6-5,” Lucia said. “We have to beat them 3-2 or possibly 4-3. It’s how well we play without the puck.”
Minnesota defeated Michigan 4-2 in the Big Ten title game last season, and the two teams split their series in Ann Arbor, Mich., in December.
The outcome of their series this weekend could determine who has the highest seed in this year’s Big Ten Tournament.
“We’re playing for the Big Ten,” Lucia said. “We’re one point up, and the goal is to [still] be up when the two-game set ends.”