MINNEAPOLIS — Between the first week of March and the second week of April, college hockey teams have four banners up for grabs. As such, Minnesota Gophers coach Bob Motzko’s declaration this week that it is “banner season” made sense.
The banner everyone plays for, Motzko noted, is the one given out on the second Saturday in April, when the Frozen Four title game is played and a national champion is crowned. But before that, a regional tournament champion will be crowned in late March, and a Big Ten playoff champion banner will be awarded on March 16 in South Bend, Ind., which is hosting the single-elimination conference tournament this season.
This weekend, the banner for Big Ten regular season champs will be earned, either by the Gophers (19-5-0) or by arch-rival Wisconsin (17-8-1), depending on how the Friday and Saturday games play out.
Motzko and his team enter the final weekend of the regular season, where they will meet Michigan at home, working under the assumption that Wisconsin will win twice at Michigan State (7-15-2). If that happens, the Gophers, currently in first place, need a win and a tie or better versus the Wolverines to hang their first conference championship banner since 2017.
With all of the mathematical scenarios out there, as conference winning percentage (not conference points) will determine which arena’s rafters eventually display that banner, Motzko has taken steps to simplify his team’s mission.
“We have to win Friday night. That’s all I know, is we have to win one game to set it up, and that’s really what our concentration is,” Motzko said this week. “I can tell you from history, we only talk about the league championship in the last two weeks if you’re in the hunt for it. This is banner season, and right now every week we play, you play for a banner.”
The situation is eerily reminiscent of one year ago, before so much of the world was turned upside down. The Gophers entered the final weekend of the 2019-20 regular season needing to beat Michigan to win a share of the Big Ten title. They came up short, and amid all that has happened in the world in the ensuing 12 months, that is a bitter taste that has not left the team’s collective mouths.
“I think that’s definitely in the back of our mind, but for us it’s just another game and we’ve got to play our game. This is a fun time of year because you’re playing for something, so we’re just going to have fun with it,” said captain Sammy Walker. “It would be unbelievable. Any trophy, any banner that you win, it’s awesome and amazing, and that’s something that we’re striving for.”
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The Gophers come into the series fully healthy and well rested, having gotten a surprise weekend off when their series at Penn State was cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns among the Nittany Lions. They have won four in a row and eight of their last 10, but still see room for improvement, notably on the power play, where the Gophers are 1-for-13 (7.7%) in their last 14 opportunities.
“We’ve been off on our power play for the last month, let’s say. I just haven’t liked our puck movement. I want to see a little better puck movement, tape to tape, connect the dots quicker,” Motzko said, adding that at least part of the 12-day break was spent putting “final touches” on their game.
Michigan (13-8-1) can finish as high as third and as low as fifth depending on this weekend’s outcomes. The Wolverines had a five-game winning streak starting in mid-January and looked like title contenders, but have gone 2-2-1 in their last five games, and have dealt with a COVID-related interruption to their season.
The school that gave us the “Fab Five” a generation ago, when a quintet of rookie starters led the Wolverines basketball team to the 1992 NCAA title game, is renowned for young talent, with five freshmen and a sophomore among their top six scorers.
“We know how they play the game and they’re a very skilled team,” said senior forward Brannon McManus, who was injured in December when the Gophers swept a road series vs the Wolverines. “Their scoring comes from that freshman group and they’re unbelievable hockey players, but at the same time we know what we have in our end. That’s depth and speed and when we have everything going and playing the right way, we’re a really tough team to play against too.”
Michigan series notes
- The Gophers and Wolverines first met on the ice in Minneapolis on Jan. 22, 1923. The Gophers won that one 2-0 and they lead the all-time series 146-129-18. They faced each other for the 1953 NCAA title in Colorado Springs, Colo., with the Wolverines winning, 7-3.
- The most legendary goal in the rivalry between Minnesota and Michigan was scored 25 years ago this month, in the NCAA West Regional finale in East Lansing, Mich. From behind the Gophers’ net, the Wolverines’ Mike Legg lifted the puck onto his stick blade and tucked it, lacrosse style, into the upper corner of the net behind Minnesota goalie Steve DeBus. The Wolverines would win the game 4-3 on their way to the 1996 NCAA title. To this day, lacrosse style goals in college hockey are known as “the Michigan.”
- Friday’s game is a 7 p.m. start, televised by FOX Sports North Plus and FOX Sports Detroit, with streams available through FOX Sports Go and BTN+. Charlie Beattie and legendary Gopher alum Lou Nanne will call the action. Saturday is senior day at 3M Arena at Mariucci, with a 4 p.m. first faceoff. Big Ten Network will televise the finale with Chris Vosters and Paul Caponigri on the broadcast team. It will also be available via stream on the FOX Sports app. Both games will also be available via the Gopher Radio Network with Wally Shaver and Frank Mazzocco on the call on 1130 KTLK-AM/103.5 FM.