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Wolverines wary of getting lost on Lake Mariucci

Now 25 years old, the Gophers' home rink features one of the largest ice sheets in college hockey at 200 feet long by 100 feet wide, which is 15 feet wider than standard NHL-size rinks. Courtesy photo / University of Minnesota Athletics1 / 2
After getting Michigan Tech back into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1981, Mel Pearson found instant success at Michigan, guiding the Wolverines to the 2018 NCAA Frozen Four in his first season in Ann Arbor. Courtesy photo / Michigan Photography2 / 2

MINNEAPOLIS -- On their final approach to Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport on Thursday, Jan. 21, there’s a good chance the Michigan Wolverines flew over Lake Nokomis, in south Minneapolis, and saw the remnants of the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships, which were played last weekend.

Dozens of large-scale rinks on the ice of a frozen Minnesota lake are the perfect metaphor for the kind of hockey the Wolverines hope to avoid this weekend when they face the Minnesota Gophers in a pair of Big Ten games.

The Gophers’ home rink has one of the largest seating capacities (10,000) and largest ice sheets (200 feet by 100 feet) not only in the conference, but in all of college hockey. Standard NHL-size rinks are 200 by 85 and Michigan coach Mel Pearson, who likely skated on a frozen Minnesota lake a time or two while spending his teen years in the Twin Cities suburbs, has been warning his players about the dangers in getting lost on defense amid all of that playing surface area.

“You have to be careful because you don’t want to get caught outside the dots. It’s an extra 15 feet wider and the corners in Minnesota are really deep, unlike some Olympic-size rinks, so it seems like you’re skating on a pond and it’s easy to get drawn out, then you’ve got a long way to get back to the net,” Pearson said this week. “Playing good defense is going to be important for us to make sure we’re playing between the dots, and give them the outside, so to speak. If you get out there, sometimes you don’t realize you’re far from the net.”

The Gophers got a tie and a win versus Michigan when they visited Yost Ice Arena in December, and are well aware that even a split this weekend could give them their first win of a season series versus a Big Ten foe.

Gophers coach Bob Motzko is cognizant of the need for defense as well, but likes what his team has done with the puck lately, having scored 18 goals in the last four games. The downside of all of that offense is that the Gophers have also allowed 18 goals, and have one win, in those four games.

“We’re building some confidence offensively, and it’s the first time all year you’ve heard me say that now we have to tighten back up defensively,” Motzko said. “We’ve been a pretty solid defensive team, but 18 goals in four games, we’ve got to hit a reset button there.”

The Wolverines are 3-3-2 since that series with the Gophers in December, and have had to adjust offensively after losing one of their top scorers. Sophomore forward Josh Norris is out for the rest of the season after getting hurt while playing for Team USA at the World Junior Championships.

As for the Gophers’ health, there is good news. Freshman forward Sammy Walker, who missed his first game of the season on Saturday due to an undisclosed injury, was a full participant in Thursday’s practice. Motzko said he plans on having Walker -- the team’s top-scoring rookie -- in Friday’s lineup.

The Gophers lead the all-time series with Michigan, which began in 1923, by a 140-127-16 count.