Bright lights, big city. That's what awaits the Gophers men's hockey team on Saturday night, when it plays Michigan State in New York City's famed Madison Square Garden as part of the Big Ten's Super Saturday Doubleheader.
Before they can enjoy the big stage, though, the Gophers must focus on Thursday's series opener against the Spartans in East Lansing, Mich., in a game that has taken on added importance.
Minnesota (13-12-1, 4-9-1 Big Ten) has lost five consecutive conference games and seven of eight, dropping into sixth place in the Big Ten standings, only three points (or one victory) ahead of last-place Michigan State.
"You gotta win," Gophers coach Don Lucia said, emphasizing Thursday's game. "We've put ourselves in a tough spot in the league, just because of what we've done in the last number of games."
The Gophers, who on Jan. 7 beat then-No. 1 St. Cloud State 2-0, were swept in a Big Ten series last weekend for the third time this season, falling 5-3 and 3-1 to Michigan at 3M Arena at Mariucci. Winning the conference regular-season title is almost impossible for the Gophers -- first-place Notre Dame is up 22 points on Minnesota -- so the Gophers' task shifts to improving their NCAA tournament chances. Their standing in the PairWise Rankings, tied for No. 15, has them on the NCAA bubble.
"This weekend for us is huge. It's definitely do-or-die," said freshman forward Casey Mittelstadt, whose 18 points are tied for second on the team. "We've got to go out there and get a couple wins."
After Thursday's game, the Gophers will have a light skate Friday in East Lansing before flying to New York for a nighttime arrival. There will be no time for sightseeing.
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"You just live solely into the next game and the next moment," Lucia said. "It seems like any normal trip, other than we're playing on Thursday. ... Until we're actually getting into New York, it won't seem like it's happening."
The Gophers and Spartans will play at 7 p.m. (Central) on Saturday, finishing a twin bill that starts with Minnesota's men's basketball team playing No. 22 Ohio State at 11 a.m. in Madison Square Garden.
"It's a game all of us had circled in our calendar at the beginning of the year," Gophers senior defenseman Steve Johnson said, "but at the same time, you can't look past [Thursday]."
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