By Mike Max

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — It is a strange time for the University of Minnesota men’s hockey team.

They’ve played themselves into contention in the Big Ten, but are barely above .500 on the season. The wins are starting to come, but the fervor for the team has not.

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The Gopher hockey team worked out on Tuesday at Mariucci Arena. It’s January, so it’s time to start a focus on a run at a conference title. And yet, it is not lost on this team that fans expect more than to be just above .500.

“We don’t care about that stuff. Of course there’s going to be people criticizing you, but that’s just a part of it. We’re just trying to get better as a team here,” Leon Bristedt said.

They are playing better these days. Three straight wins changes the outlook, a little like a run a year ago.

“You know we were in a similar situation last year coming into about the end of January. We put together a pretty good run in February and finished the year on a pretty good note. Now we’re kind of lurking in a very similar position,” coach Don Lucia said.

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The other question on everyone’s mind isn’t so much about the performance right now but even if they do play well, will the fan fervor return? Or has the Big Ten eliminated much of that?

The question is: Will the current schedule ever evoke the emotion we saw in the WCHA, and with that, the crowds.

“It’s kind of interesting to kind of build up these rivalries with Penn State and Ohio State. I mean they’re new and they’re fresh,” Connor Reilly said. “I think Michigan in a few years is going to be a rivalry just as intense North Dakota or Wisconsin just because they’re a great team every year.”

For this weekend that is not a problem, not when you prepare to play Wisconsin.

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“Last year I think we were 2-0-2 against them, lost two shoot-outs against them. They’ve had their ups and downs during the course of the year but there is no question that they are better than last year,” Lucia said.

Mike Max