With the temperature threatening a March-like mid-40s outdoors, Minnesota hockey players and coaches were wearing sunny dispositions during Wednesday's practice inside 3M Arena at Mariucci. And who could blame them, what with Gophers fresh off a sweep of Wisconsin in Madison, riding a hot streak of five victories in six games and giving a slight glance toward the upcoming Big Ten and NCAA tournaments?
"For sure," senior defenseman Steve Johnson said of the team's outlook. "That was a good weekend. Any time you get two wins at Wisco, with the Border Battle atmosphere and whatnot, that's good for our team."
"It was great," junior captain Tyler Sheehy echoed. "Most importantly, we played two really good games."
Only one more guaranteed #Gophers series on campus this year...help us make sure there are more when the playoffs start!— Minnesota M Hockey (@GopherHockey) February 15, 2018
The No. 10/9 #Gophers host No. 6 Ohio State this weekend.
Friday at 8 (BTN), Saturday at 4 (ESPNU)
Preview: https://t.co/00FIUaMOv3 pic.twitter.com/87zQ5wd25N
But for every mild winter day in Minnesota, there's potential for a reality check quickly blowing in. For the ninth-ranked Gophers (18-13-1, 9-10-1-1 Big Ten), that comes in the form of a Friday night-Saturday afternoon visit from No. 6 Ohio State (19-7-4, 12-7-1), a stingy defensive squad that swept Minnesota in Columbus in early December. The Buckeyes are second in the Big Ten standings, eight points ahead of the fourth-place Gophers, and are coming off a 5-1 romp over then-No. 1 Notre Dame.
"We obviously have four really important [regular-season] games to go, starting Friday night with Ohio State, but guys seem to be playing a bit better right now," Gophers coach Don Lucia said. "When your offensive guys score some goals and get on the scoresheet, it lightens the load mentally for them."
No Gophers had that mental load lightened more than Sheehy and senior forward Leon Bristedt, the team's first- and fourth-leading scorers from 2016-17 whose production has decreased this season.
Sheehy had three goals and two assists against Wisconsin, keying the Friday victory with two third-period tallies. Bristedt had a three-point weekend, scoring his first goal since Dec. 29 — and his first non-empty-net goal since Nov. 4 — in Saturday's game.
"The last few games, I felt more comfortable," said Sheehy, a first-team All-American last season with 30 goals and 30 assists, who has 12 goals and 11 assists this season. "The beginning of the year was a struggle for me. Second half has been a little bit better — maybe not getting the goals and assists, but I just felt that my game's been improving as the season's gone on."
#Gophers captain @TylerSheehy is your Big Ten First Star of the Week after leading the B1G with five points (3g-2a) in the #BorderBattle sweep.— Minnesota M Hockey (@GopherHockey) February 13, 2018
The junior All-American factored into both game winners and ranks T1 in the NCAA with 5 GWGs. #PrideOnIce pic.twitter.com/TnvKlQ1Bh7
Bristedt, who has four goals and four assists this season after a 12-21 — 33 campaign in 2016-17, has impressed Lucia with his perseverance during the slump.
"When you watch the game and watch the tape, he's working so hard every night," the coach said. "He just hasn't been rewarded. But he was rewarded last weekend."
The Gophers might need their best scorers to be sharp again against Ohio State, which is giving up 2.17 goals per game (sixth nationally) and owns the nation's best penalty kill (90.43 percent). If not, they'll have to win with tight defense. "As much as we want to continue to score goals, this is the time of the year when you have to win some 2-1, 3-2 games," Lucia said.
By winning this weekend, the Gophers could reap the benefits of home-ice advantage in the Big Ten quarterfinals and a better seeding in the NCAA tournament.
"March is such an exciting time, and obviously we've got to finish off February here," sophomore defenseman Ryan Lindgren said, "but guys are getting really excited that we put ourselves in a good situation and we control our own destiny."
This article is written by Randy Johnson from Star Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.