The Michigan Wolverines defeated the Gopher Hockey Team 5-3 in the Big Ten Championship Game, ending Minnesota's season. The Gophers needed to win the Big Ten Tournament to make the NCAA Tournament after a poor non-conference showing, but Michigan made sure that would not happen.
Minnesota's main goal coming into the game was to avoid taking penalties and putting the Wolverines' #1 power-play unit in the country on the ice. As an unfortunate symbolism to the Gophers season, that didn't happen, and Michigan made them pay. The Wolverines scored three of their four non-empty net goals on the power play. While the NCAA West Regional will be hosted by the Gophers at the Xcel Energy Center next weekend, Minnesota will be missing. It’s the first time the Gophers have missed the NCAA Tournament since the 2011-12 season.
Michigan got on the board first with a power-play goal by Tyler Motte. Unfortunately for Minnesota who did a good job controlling the CCM line of Michigan that last time the teams played, tonight would not be the same. Kyle Connor and Zach Werenski got the assists on the Motte goal. Names that would repeat all night long for the Wolverines.
Michigan took their 1-0 lead to the second period where they struck on the power-play yet again. JT Compher got the puck at the side of the net and pushed it off the back of Gopher goalie Eric Schierhorn’s pads and past the post to put the Wolverines up 2-0 just 1:31 into the second. Minnesota would make sure to have some fight though.
The Gophers got onto the board five minutes later when Leon Bristedt ripped a great pass from Vinni Lettieri past Steve Racine to cut the Wolverine lead to one. Less than four minutes later, Gopher defenseman Jake Bischoff made a great individual play as he saw Racine fall to the ice. Bischoff took the puck around the Wolverine net and put the wraparound into the corner before Racine could recover to tie the score. Michigan complained about goaltender interference as Tyler Sheehy was near Racine when he fell, but after a review by the officials, the goal was allowed and the game knotted at two. Minnesota would take their only lead of the game at the 16:50 mark of the second when Gopher captain Justin Kloos ripped a shot from the point home on the power-play. The X was loud, and the Gophers seemed to have all the momentum as they went into the locker room with a 3-2 lead after two periods.
Unfortunately for Minnesota, the momentum wouldn’t last. Michigan tied the game just 3:28 into the third period when a Gopher defensive lapse left Kyle Connor all alone to the left of Schierhorn after a great pass from Compher. Connor shook Schierhorn out of his pads with a gorgeous deke and put the puck in the wide open net. The game would remain tied late into the third period when the Gophers did the one thing they could not do…take another stupid penalty. Gopher sophomore defenseman Jack Glover bearhugged Connor behind the Gopher net and dragged him to the ice in an obvious holding call. Michigan would make Minnesota pay just 45 seconds into the power play when Werenski ripped a huge blast over Schierhorn’s shoulder to give Michigan a lead it would not give up. Minnesota pulled Schierhorn with two minutes left in the period, and Motte finished off the game with an empty net goal to complete the scoring.
Michigan gets the Big Ten’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, though they would have made the tournament no matter how the game ended. Minnesota will miss the tournament for the first time since 2010-11, and it’s especially painful since the west regional is at the Xcel Energy Center next weekend.
The biggest difference in tonight’s game is that Michigan got what they needed from their star players. Motte finished with two goals, Compher has a goal and two assists, Werenski had a goal and three assists, and probable Hobey Baker Award winner Connor also had a goal and three assists. Meanwhile for the Gophers, only Justin Kloos showed up on the scoresheet for Minnesota’s leadership. Hudson Fasching in playing possibly his last game for the Gophers didn’t record a point in going -1 on the night. That just wasn’t enough. However allowing the Wolverines to go 3 for 4 on the power-play was the Gopher’s cardinal sin. It’s why Michigan will keep playing next week and Minnesota will watch on tv.
Much will be said in the coming days about what was a critical reason for the Gophers failures this season. The non-development of the Gophers sophomore class of defensemen, most notably Ryan Collins and Glover will be one hot issue. Another will be the future of Lucia at Minnesota. He has one year left on his contract and one would assume he will want an extension if he is to stay at Minnesota. Or, he may decide to say next year will be his last behind the bench and ride off into the sunset with a farewell tour. Or, he could decide that this was it. Without a permanent AD in place, it’s almost assured if Lucia is done after this season it will be solely his decision. But there will be plenty of time to argue the merits of this in the future. All that can be said is that even with a 5th consecutive regular season championship, this season will go down as a failure in the heads of many Gopher fans. And that’s not the way anyone wants to end their season.