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Minnesota Hockey: Gophers Are Regular Season Big Ten Champions

The 5th title in nine years of Big Ten play for Minnesota

Matt Krohn—

The Minnesota Gophers men’s hockey team knew it had a chance at a Big Ten regular season title as it entered the weekend. Down just two points to the Michigan Wolverines in the standings, they knew they couldn’t do it themselves but would need some help. Well, the Gophers got the best of both worlds, a sweep of the Wolverines by Notre Dame and an absolute demolishing of Wisconsin by the Gophers of levels that had not happened since the 1930s. It all came together and Saturday night the Gophers were handed the Big Ten regular Season Championship Trophy for the fifth time in nine years.

Things got off to a good start for Minnesota Friday night when Notre Dame would knock off Michigan 4-1 in their series opener. That was the break the Gophers needed to know they then controlled their own destiny. They didn’t wait long to seize it. Minnesota jumped on the Badgers 1-0 on their first shot of the game as Jonny Sorenson ripped a wrister past ex-Gopher Jared Moe and the Gopher student section serenaded him with the Funnel Chant.

The Gophers added one more late in the second period. Wisconsin had gained some momentum and it appeared that they could tie the game at any moment. Justen Close hung tough for the Gophers and then Jaxon Nelson playing in his first game in nearly two months coming back from an ankle injury tipped in a Jackson LaCombe blast on the power play to put Minnesota up 2-0 with just 29.7 seconds left in the second period.

That goal seemed to drown the spirits of the Badgers, and then the Ben Meyers show got underway. Meyers would score a pure hat trick in the third period, the first goal on a gorgeous individual move and when Moe blocked the first shot Meyers circled around the net and found the rebound and put it in. Seven minutes layer Meyers scored his second in a row on a shallow angle shot after a great play by Mathew Knies to get the puck out in the corner and a great feed from Mason Nevers for the goal. Meyers send the hats flying to the Mariucci ice with 2:41 left in the game when he took a feed from Knies and ripped a one-timer over Moe’s shoulder. The Badger goalie kicked the net off the moorings for what seemed like the 5th or 6th tie that game but the referee was adamant that the puck was in and the goal counted. Justen Close would end up making 20 saves for his first collegiate shutout.

The table was set for Saturday. Minnesota knew all they needed to do was win, no matter the results of the Michigan/Notre Dame game and they were the Big Ten Champions. And then the Irish did the job for them. Maple Grove native Landon Slaggart scored for Notre Dame with just over three minutes left in the game to give them a 2-1 win over Michigan, and the Championship was Minnesota’s. However, they initially did not know. There was no in-arena announcement, and the score was finally posted on the ribbon boards above the rink, but not before a Wisconsin goal was scored and called back to due goalie interference, and Minnesota immediately responded with a pair of goals in 21 seconds to take control once again. Meyers stayed hot from the night before scoring the fourth of the weekend and guarantying himself the Big Ten’s #1 Star of the Week to open the scoring for the Gophers. Tristan Broz made it 2-0 21 seconds later and the rout was on and the party got going.

Minnesota would add one more in the second period on a five minute major powerplay. After Sammy Walker got boarded by notable cheap shot artist Roman Achan of Wisconsin, Bryce Brodzynski stood up for him and went after Achan. Achan got five minutes for boarding, Brodzy got a pair for roughing and then immediately came out of the box after his penalty was over and scored.

The third period is where the Gophers just could not be stopped, and Wisconsin looked like they wanted their season to be over. The Gophers would score five goals in the third with Walker, Mike Koester, Knies, Rhett Pitlick and Grant Cruikshank all finding the back of the net. Close would earn his second consecutive shut out making 24 saves and the celebration was on.

It was a series of historic proportions for Minnesota. The Gophers had not recorded back to back shutouts of Wisconsin in a single series since 1934. The 8-0 final was the worst loss the Badgers had against the Gophers since a 9-0 loss in 1935. It was a total domination.

Minnesota won their first regular season title since 2016 and now have 5 in the 9 year run of the Big Ten hockey conference. With the win they clinch the first round bye in the Big Ten Tournament and will advance directly to a single game semifinal to be held Saturday March 12th at 3M Arena at Mariucci. The Gophers will play the lowest advancing seed. The three first round matchups include #2 Michigan hosting #7 Michigan State, #3 Notre Dame hosting #6 Wisconsin, and #4 Ohio State hosting #5 Penn State.

The Gophers now have an 8-game winning streak headed into the post season and have outscored their opponents 27-11 in that time. Justen Close now ranks 5th in the nation in both save percentage at .933, and goals against average at 1.73. Minnesota was a perfect 8-0 in February for the first time since 1987.

Congrats and Ski-U-Mah to the Gophers for adding one more banner to the Mariucci rafters. Hopefully with more to come.