Friday, February 24, 2017

BLOG: Mike Szmatula's status, roller coaster comebacks returning, Wisconsin turnaround & stakes

Some Friday morning leftovers prior to this weekend's Border Battle:

Redshirt junior forward Mike Szmatula remains day-to-day for this weekend's series against the Badgers with a lower body injury.

"He's a question mark right now. We don't know if he'll play or not play," said head coach Don Lucia. "We'll see where he is (Thursday and Friday).

Szmatula suffered the injury in front of the Gopher net less than three minutes into last Friday's 6-3 win. He did return minutes later for the game's conclusion, but was held out Saturday after taking warm-ups.

Szmatula did participate for part of Wednesday's practice. If he is unable to play tonight, Luke Notermann would likely be the replacement since Joey Marooney is suspended.

"Don't Call It A Comeback"

Prior to the Ohio State series, I spoke with Justin Kloos about how the team has found a smooth ride over a stretch following last season's extreme highs and lows. Games haven't had the frantic last minute comebacks or blown leads since a stretch in late October/early November.

About that...

Four games later Minnesota got back on the roller coaster. While a year ago Kloos, learning on the job, being captain of that team meant a lot of heartbreak, this time the comeback coaster contains more winning results.

Over that stretch the Gophers are 3-1, coming back from at least two goals in three of the four games (the fourth being one where Minnesota gave up the tying goal and then scored three straight to win). It was capped off in Saturday's 4-3 overtime win when Kloos

"A lot of times last year it felt like we playing desperate hockey because of the position we had put ourselves in after a bad start," he said prior to the OSU series.

The approach to coming back hasn't changed, Kloos said at the time. They know they can't take nights off. At the very least it's been working as the Gophers are 8-5-3 after giving up the game's first goal.

Part of that has to do with everyone being a year older and having confidence throughout the lineup. The seniors, and even upperclassmen like Leon Bristedt and Ryan Collins who aren't wearing letters, are starting to take a leadership role.

"Our game is just more solid and confident. When you walk into the building there is no question you are going to win," he said. "When you go into the third period and you're up by two with ten minutes left there's no question in our mind that we're going to pull it out.

"Not saying that by the end of the year anything can happen, but having that confident 'been there, done that' mentality has been really helpful in mellowing out the roller coaster.

"Overall I think we have a good grasp of who we are as a team."

Did anything change as far as mindset two weeks later following the Denis Smirnov penalty shot goal on Saturday night?

"We stayed somewhat even-keeled on the bench. Obviously you can't do anything about what happened. We had a 1:15-1:30 to tie it so we still believed," he said. "Once you get down to the final 10 seconds you just start throwing everything at the net and it worked."

Pretty similar, even if the ride isn't.

Although Rem Pitlick wasn't around last season, the NCAA first star of the week has picked up on the same mentality.

“We just don’t quit. The game’s not over until the last buzzer sounds. That’s the mentality we have, and we really battled at the end,” he told me after Saturday's win. “It was nice to see us rewarded.”

As the play was drawn up, Kloos had three options on the game-tying goal if Taylor Cammarata (taking a rare face-off without Szmatula or Tommy Novak) got him the puck. He could get it to Leon Bristedt for a one-timer. He could pass it to Jake Bischoff. Or he could shoot if the lanes were open, which was the successful choice for the senior captain.

Although the other two members of the Road Runner Line made more noise last weekend, Tyler Sheehy had a pair of multi-point games plus the original, pre-Smirnov game-tying goal.

In fact, Sheehy has scored multiple points in five of his last six games. His 46 points are good for eighth in the nation. If that holds, the sophomore forward would be the first Gopher since Erik Haula in 2012-13 to finish in the top-ten nationally.

Wisconsin enters this weekend trailing the Gophers by three points in the Big Ten standings with six games to go.

The weekend has massive stakes for the Badgers, who can get comfortably into the NCAA at-large bid conversation with a win or two against Minnesota. Currently the team is on the outside looking in, needing three or four wins in its last six games (coming against three teams above them in the Pairwise between MN, PSU and OSU).

Wisconsin split last season in the series at Mariucci Arena, in which the pieces seemed to start coming together too little, too late for Mike Eaves. Now under Tony Granato, the Badgers are looking like the biggest obstacle between the Gophers and a sixth straight regular season title, having played Minnesota close in a pair of games in Madison.

With that and the biggest Big Ten rival coming to town, it should make for a good home series.

"We'll have a good crowd," Lucia said. "It's one of those series that the fans look forward to, it sounds like it's pretty much sold out for the games on Friday and Saturday. So the atmosphere is going to be there. Now you want to have that emotional component involved too when the puck drops."

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