The Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey team put together it’s best home weekend of the season in front of their two smallest crowds of the season in sweeping the Michigan Wolverines in a Big Ten best-of three Quarterfinal. The Gophers struggled to battle back and earn an overtime win on Friday night before jumping out to an early lead and cruising to a series clinching win on Saturday. Minnesota now advances to play Notre Dame in a single elimination Big Ten Semifinal game in South Bend on Saturday.
The Gophers got off to a flat start in Friday night’s game. Whether it was the lack of a home crowd to pump them up or just nerves, it showed as the Wolverines dominated the beginning of the game. They would go up 1-0 8:28 into the game on a goal by Micheal Pastujov. Minnesota battles back and had some scoring chances late in the period but it remained 1-0 after one.
The Wolverines would make it 2-0 early in the second. Will Lockwood would score just 1:08 into the second as the Gopher defense just stood flat-footed as he worked through them to put a puck past Mat Robson. Michigan continued to look like the better team for a majority of the period but Robson would shut them down making some impressive saves. The Gophers would get on the board at the 4:42 mark of the second when Tyler Sheehy took a pass and weaved through the Michigan defense before ripping a backhand shot into the top corner of the new over Wolverine goalie Strauss Mann to cut the lead to 2-1.
It would remain 2-1 until midway through the third period. Minnesota finally had some jump in their step and had several good looks early in the period. They connected on the game typing goal when the freshman line of Sampo Ranta, Sammy Walker, and Blake McLaughlin was finally rewarded for their great play. Ranta took possession of the puck deep in the Gopher defensive zone and whipped a pass down the ice that hit Walker as he hit the Michigan blue line. Walker skated down the left side and saucered an incredible backhand pass through two defenders to hi McLaughlin perfectly as he streaked towards the net. He shot the puck into the right side of the open goal past Mann to tie the game at 2 with 10:54 left in regulation.
Both teams has good looks in the rest of regulation but neither team could score. In overtime once again both teams had opportunities. Each team had one power-play but both penalty kills held tough until the Wolverines were called for tripping with 10:37 left in the extra session. Brent Gates, Jr, made a great play in the corner to keep the puck in the zone and it went to Rem Pitlick. Pitlick circled the Wolverine net and seeing no opening he began to circle once more when he found a crashing Brannon McManus on the front left corner of the net. McMannus took the pass from Pitlick and put it above Mann to give the Gophers a big 3-2 game one victory.
It was a huge win for many reasons. First, Michigan was nearly unbeatable when leading after two periods. Coming into the game the Wolverines were 11-3 when leading after two periods. Michigan was also 8-2-2 in the first game of Big Ten series, but just 1-8-3 in game two. Minnesota had all the momentum. They also caught a bit of a break when Vancouver Canucks First Round Pick and Michigan defenseman Quinn Hughes blocked a Gopher shot late in the third period and missed the end of regulation and the overtime period. He would return for Saturday’s game but was clearly not 100%.
Minnesota took all the momentum they had from Friday’s win and took it to the Wolverines on Saturday. The Gophers would score three first period goals from Tommy Novak, Scott Reedy and Pitlick. Pitlick would add his second of the night late in the second on a power-play blast to make it 4-0 and the rout was on. The Wolverines got a goal late in the third to end Robson’s shutout bid, but Minnesota would easily hang on to win 4-1 and advance to the Big Ten Semifinals.
The Gophers will play Notre Dame in South Bend Saturday night after the Irish swept Michigan State with a pair of shutouts last weekend. Minnesota went 3-1 this season against Notre Dame including a sweep of the Irish in South Bend in January. The game will face-off at 6PM and will air live on BTN.
The other semifinal will pit Penn State at the regular season champion Ohio State in a single game Sunday afternoon. The two winners will face-off at the highest seed remaining the following weekend for the Big Ten Championship.
Gopher Recruits with a Big State Tournament Weekend:
The future of the Gopher program shone brightly at the Minnesota State High School Tournament over the weekend in St. Paul. Minnesota was represented on both state championship teams as Nate Warner plays for Class A Champion St. Cloud Cathedral while future Gophers Jake Boltmann, Mason Nevers, and Nick Williams all play for AA Champ Edina. Three Gophers were also on Class AA runner-up Eden Prairie—Jack Jensen and Casey Mittelstadt’s two brothers John and Luke.
Additionally two future Gophers took home Statewide Honors on Sunday. Blaine’s Bryce Brodzinski was named the 2019 Mr. Hockey Award winner while Chaska’s Mike Koster was named the Reed Larson Award winner that goes to the State’s top senior defenseman. Brodzinski, Koster and Jensen may play for the Gophers in 2019-20, or may play a year of junior hockey depending on which players leave Minnesota early for the professional ranks after their season is over.