For the second night in a row it took a flurry of a third period rally and an eventual game winning goal in overtime, but the Minnesota Golden Gophers will play for a Big Ten Tournament Championship and a probable NCAA #1 seed on Tuesday night. The Gophers came back from a 2-0 deficit after two periods to defeat the Michigan Wolverines 3-2 in OT and set up a Border Battle for the Banner Tuesday night.
For the second game in a row the Gophers came out of the gate slow and their opponent made them pay. Minnesota didn’t have a shot on goal yet in the game before Michigan’s Kent Johnson put some gorgeous Wolverine passing on the power play past Jack LaFontaine to give Michigan a 1-0 lead just 3:44 into the game. The Gophers would get two power play chances of their own later in the period but could not get a great look on Wolverine goalie Strauss Mann and Michigan took that 1-0 lead into the intermission.
The second period was more of the first. Minnesota had some chances but more often than not they shot the puck directly into the center of Mann’s chest. Michigan would take advantage of one of their chances and on a 4 on 2 rush it was Garrett Van Whye putting the puck in the net to give the Wolverines a 2-0 edge.
Finally the Gophers came alive right out of the gate to start the third period and it paid off. Nathan Burke cut the Wolverine lead in half when he took a pass from Jack Perbix and slid a backhand through Mann’s five-hole with 15:53 left to play in the third period.
The Wolverines held their ground despite the Gophers chances until Sunday’s hero Sampo Ranta came up with another huge play with 4:26 left in the third period. Ryan Johnson kept a Wolverine clearing attempt in at the blue line and passed it to Jaxon Nelson. Nelson got the puck caught in his skates but regained control and found Ranta at the left circle. He ripped a wrister low through Mann’s five-hole once again and the Gophers came up with some late 3rd period magic for the second game in a row.
Thank you universe, for letting us have Sampo Ranta. pic.twitter.com/daFgaC1wed— Minnesota Men’s Hockey (@GopherHockey) March 16, 2021
After Ranta tied it both teams played fairly tentatively trying not to make a mistake and were fine headed to intermission and coming back for overtime.
In the extra session both teams had early chances but both Mann and Lafontaine made saves. The Gophers continues to press and nearly had the game won when Scott reedy rang a shot off the crossbar. The Gophers regained possession and pushed a tired Wolverine defense. Brock Faber who had a great game coming off of his injury Sunday kept the puck in the zone on a Michigan clearing attempt and he found Ben Brinkman on the left point. Brinkman ripped a hard shot at the net and Mann made the initial save, but the rebound kicked out right to Sammy Walker who was sitting outside the right goalpost and he buried the game winner to keep Minnesota’s championship hopes alive.
WE'RE GOING TO THE 'SHIP!!!! pic.twitter.com/LY61Vtp8wQ— Minnesota Men’s Hockey (@GopherHockey) March 16, 2021
Jack LaFontaine did his usual thing making 35 saves to get the win. It was the first time this season that the Gophers had come from a two-goal deficit back to win. It now sets up an epic Border Battle rematch in the championship game Tuesday night.
Wisconsin advanced after their own scare from Penn State. The Nittany Lions had a one goal lead midway through the third period but the Badgers would tie the game at three to force overtime. In the OT period Penn State did the unforgivable leaving probable Hobey Baker Award Winner Cole Caufield all alone at the Nittany Lion blue line, and he took a perfect stretch pass to set up a breakaway. He didn’t miss. Badgers win 4-3.
For as long as Minnesota and Wisconsin have been rivals, it’s been a very long time since they matched up against one another in a conference championship game. You need to go back to the 1990 WCHA Championship Game, back when it was just the Final 4, not the Final 5 at the St. Paul Civic Center to find the last time. The Badgers would beat up on the Gophers than night winning 7-1 where current Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik would be named MVP. That Badger team would go on to win the NCAA Championship a few weeks later.
The other thing on the line Tuesday night besides a banner is a probable NCAA #1 seed. With the top two Big Ten teams making it to the championship game, it would seem that this is a playoff game for the last top spot. The main advantage of getting the #1 seed is guaranteeing that the NCAA won’t do something stupid and ship you to Fargo for ease of travel purposes if you would get a #2 seed. The Gophers can guarantee themselves that with a win. Hopefully they remember they can actually score goals in the first two periods as well because I don’t think Wisconsin will be as generous as Michigan and Michigan State have been.
The game will faceoff at 7PM and air live on BTN.