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Minnesota Hockey: Gophers Win Big Ten Championship 6-4 over Wisconsin

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It got too close for comfort at the end, but the Gophers hang on

Mike Miller/ Big Ten Hockey

The Minnesota Golden Gophers are the Big Ten Hockey Tournament Champions for the first time since 2015. The Gophers used a four goal second period to break the game open and then hung on for dear life as Wisconsin stormed back in the third period to nearly tie the game, cutting the Gopher lead to 5-4 with just over two minutes to play. But the Gophers would hang on to earn the title, hang a banner, and earn a probable NCAA #1 seed when the field is announced Sunday night.

Minnesota came out from the start of the game like they were ready to play tonight, unlike the previous two games. This game will go down as the Blake McLaughlin game for the Gophers as he played quite possibly his best game in the maroon and gold at one of the highest stages. He would put Minnesota up 1-0 10:32 into the first period when he took a feed from Scott Reedy and dekes Badger goalie Cameron Rowe.

Both teams would have some good looks in the remainder of the period but both Rowe and Jack Lafontaine made the saves they needed to to keep it a 1-0 Gopher lead into the first intermission.

The Gophers wasted no time going ahead by two goals when Mike Koster would wrist a shot from the point past Rowe to make it 2-0 just 1:47 into the period.

Wisconsin would cut the Gopher lead in half at 2-1 with 7:06 left in the period when Roman Acan would score his first goal of the game off of a deflection off of Sampo Ranta’s stick in front of the Minnesota net. But the Gophers would respond...and how.

The Gophers exploded for three goals in a span of two minutes and 42 seconds at the end of the period. Brannon McManus would score the Gophers third goal on a tap in after a gorgeous rush by Jaxon Nelson. Nelson passed to Sampo Ranta who it looked like scored the goal, but the puck sat just being Rowe on the goal line and McManus tapped it in to out the Gophers up 3-1.

A minute twenty-five later it was Scott Reedy making it 4-1 on a three-on-two with Sammy Walker and McLaughlin. Reedy took a pass from Walker and beat Rowe top corner. But Minnesota was not done....and thankfully because they would need every single goal.

A minute seventeen later it would be Jaxon Nelson scoring the eventual game-winning goal as he chipped in a pass from behind the net from McManus. The Gophers were up 5-1, Rowe was pulled for Robbie Beydoun, and it looked like the Gophers would cruise to a title. But Wisconsin had other ideas.

Minnesota had to do one thing in the third period. Not go into a prevent shell defense and allow the Badgers to get an early goal and pick up some momentum. Whoops. The Gophers came out flat to start the third and the Badgers took advantage. Edina native Mike Vorlicky would cut the lead to 5-2 with a shot from the point with 15:52 to play. A minute twenty four later Ahan scored his second of the game and cut the lead to 5-3. Minnesota did not look like they knew what they were doing, and Bob Motzko smartly took the Gophers time out with 14:26 left in the period to get the Gophers recombobulated.

It worked. Minnesota settled down and got some scoring chances of their own which Beydoun made several nice saves on. With 2:14 left in regulation there was a face-off to the right of Lafontaine, and the Badgers won the draw. It was a perfectly executed play putting the puck right on the stick of Badger star Cole Caufield—who had been fairly quiet for the rest of the game. But you can only hold a player like him down for so long. Caufield ripped a shot over Lafontaine’s shoulder and off of the post and in to make it a 5-4 game with 2:11 to play.

The Badgers attempted to pull Beydoun with 1:40 left, but the puck was chipped over the class forcing a neutral zone faceoff and he returned. Minnesota controlled the puck and even got a great shot from Walker on net before the Badgers could pull their goalie with a minute left to play. Wisconsin never got a great look at the net with the extra skater and McLaughlin outraced a Badger player to a puck chipped into the Wisconsin zone by Ben Meyers and put the puck in the empty net with 24 seconds left to clinch the Gophers victory and the title. He would finish with four points, a pair each of goals and assists to lead Minnesota to victory.

Jack LaFontaine was named the tournament most valuable player after making 46 saves in the championship game. For the tournament he was 3-0 with a 2.33 goals against average and a .936 save percentage. Joining him on the all tournament team was Sampo Ranta, Sammy Walker and Mike Koster. Ty Emberson and Cole Caufield from Wisconsin rounded out the group.

With the win Minnesota would appear to have locked up a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament when the field of 16 is announced Sunday night. North Dakota, Boston College and Minnesota State would seem to be the other three teams in the group of four with Wisconsin and St. Cloud State right behind on the two line.

It will remain to be seen where Minnesota is shipped for the tournament. The onle thing we do know it that it should not be Fargo as North Dakota will be placed there as the host as the #1 seed. The other three regionals are in Loveland, Colorado hosted by Denver, Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Albany, New York. Nether eastern regional will have a host school in the field. Denver is on the bubble and may squeek in as the #4 seed in Loveland, which would be the Gophers first round opponent if they were sent there. A larger article looking at bracketology will be available later this week.

For now the Gophers can come home and enjoy their title and get ready to see if they can keep their single-elimination season unblemished as we hit the NCAA Tournament!