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Minnesota Hockey: Gophers Host Michigan in Big Ten Championship Game

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One game for all the bragging rights—and a banner

Harrison Barden—Gophersports.com

The Minnesota Gophers will host the Michigan Wolverines Saturday night at 3M Arena at Mariucci for the Big Ten Tournament Championship game. The winner gets to hang a banner and gets the Big Ten’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. However both teams are easily in the field of 16 when it is announced Sunday night. In what may be the largest crowd in 3M Arena history, the Gophers hope to put on a show for their fans and keep the momentum headed in the right direction as they head into the NCAA Tournament next weekend.

Minnesota got here by winning the Big Ten Regular Season Championship, and then after a first round bye they defeated Penn State in a tough 3-2 battle last Saturday. Michigan finished second in the regular season standings after getting swept in the final regular season series of the year by Notre Dame. The Wolverines then swept Michigan State in a first round series before getting revenge on the Irish last Saturday picking up a 2-1 win to advance to Minneapolis. It should be a battle of the two best teams all year long in the conference, and good preparation for the upcoming NCAA Tournament for both teams.

It will be a matchup of stars when these two teams collide. Each team placed two players each on the First and Second All-Big Ten teams when they were announced earlier this week. Minnesota brings Big Ten Player of the Year Ben Meyers and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Brock Faber into the game while Michigan counters with Big Ten Freshman of the Year Luke Hughes and unanimous First Team All-Big Ten and the conference scoring champion in Matty Beniers. Add in a third Olympian for the Gophers in Mathew Knies that joins another trio from Michigan in Brendan Brisson, Own Power and Kent Johnson and this game will be stacked top to bottom with high end talent.

Michigan will bring an epic offense into the game. The Wolverines average 3.93 goals per game, good enough for third in the nation. Five different players for the Wolverines have 30 or more points on the season, and six different players have 10 or more goals. Matty Beniers led the conference in scoring recording 40 points on the season along with 19 goals. But when you see that the Wolverines can go three lines deep with scoring prowess, it shows how well Minnesota must play to contain Michigan. The Wolverines have two of the best defenders in the nation as well with NHL First Round draft picks Owen Power and Luke Hughes. Both are offensive juggernauts with Hughes second on the team in points and third in goals and power’s 24 assists second on the Wolverine roster.

Minnesota brings their own offensive power into the game. Minnesota is 5th in the nation in scoring at 3.63 goals per game and are led by Meyers. The Hobey Baker Finalist has 36 point and 16 goals on the season for Minnesota to lead the Gophers in both categories. Minnesota can also get scoring from three soil lines with the Sammy Walker-Blake McLaughlin-Bryce Brodzinski line coming alive once again as McLaughlin and Walker have jumped to 2 and 3 in the Gopher scoring list. Meyers have bene joined by Mathew Knies and Mason Nevers on a line of late, while the Gophers freshman line of Aaron Hugelin, Tristan Broz and Rhett Pitlick have scored some big goals down the stretch of the season.

Minnesota and Michigan are no slouch defensively either. The Wolverines allow just 2.13 goals per game while the Gophers give up 2.26. While the defense corps for both teams have been key—see Hughes and Power for Michigan and the quad of Ryan Johnson, Jackson LaCombe, Brock Faber and Mike Koster for Minnesota, much has to fall on the goalies shoulders as well. The Wolverines also have a Second Team All-Big Ten goalie as Eric Portillo has emerged as one of the best goalies in the nation. He has done for Michigan what Jack LaFontaine did a year ago for Minnesota starting all 38 games, and recording a goals against average of 2.03 and recording a save percentage of .929. Meanwhile it’s been the Justen Close show for Minnesota. Since he stepped into the lineup for the Gophers in mid-January Close has played great going 12-3 with just a 1.74 goals against average and a .933 save percentage. That places him 5th in the nation in GAA and tied for third in save percentage. He is the main reason why the Gophers are where they are right now.

A key to the game for Minnesota will be try and play as much 5x5 as possible. The Wolverines have one of the better power plays in the nation with a 25.71% success rate—good for 5th in the country. Minnesota has not been nearly as good with the man advantage scoring on just 19.09% of their power play chances ranking 31st in the nation. Minnesota has been good on the kill with an 85.87% success rate, though the Nittany Lions scored on their only power play last weekend. Michigan is not far off of Minnesota’s pace killing penalties 83.69% of the time. Approximately 24% of Michigan’s goals this season have been power play goals compared to just 16.5% for the Gophers, so Minnesota will have the edge if they can keep things at full strength.

These teams played about as even this season as one can. Michigan took a 7-5 points edge on the season, but both teams spit series in each others home rinks. In december the teams bet in Ann Arbor back with LaFontaine in goal for the Gophers and they jumped out early on the Wolverines on Friday and cruised to a 5-1 win. But Michigan would return the favor the next night. Minnesota scored the first goal, but then Michigan just over ran the Gophers in a 6-2 laugher. The teams met in Minneapolis in January in Close’s first Big Ten series in goal. He faired well as the Gophers snuck out a 2-1 OT win on Friday night before falling 4-1 on Saturday.

Minnesota does take the historical advantage heading into Saturday night. The Gophers are 6-2 all time in postseason play against the Wolverines and are 4-1 all time against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament. The teams have met for the Big Ten Championship twice before with the Gophers winning 4-2 in 2015, and the Wolverines winning 5-3 in 2016. Minnesota swept Michigan in a first round series at Mariucci in 2019, and then defeated the Wolverines in the Big Ten semifinal at Notre Dame last season.

Minnesota is also 13-2 when the two teams are ranked in the Top 10 in the nation since the 2000-01 season. Hopefully that trend continues Saturday night.

As we said both teams are safely in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan will be a #1 seed no matter the result on Saturday, but could vault to the #1 overall seed with a win. Minnesota will either be a #1 or a #2 seed depending on the results of their game, and the results of the NCHC Tournament this weekend. The potential is there for the winner of the Western Michigan/North Dakota semifinal to leapfrog the Gophers if they would then go on to win the NCHJC Tournament. All Minnesota can do is win Saturday night and let everything else fall as it may.

It will be an incredible atmosphere in the arena Saturday night as the game is sold out with the exception of standing room only tickets. Minnesota has apparently already oversold the student section, which had already expanded to five full sections of seats. It has the potential to be the largest crowd in arena history, and is guaranteed to be the loudest crowd since at least the early 2010’s, if not earlier. If the Gophers can feed off of that energy, play smart and get good goaltending, there is no reason why they can’t win and hang the second of hopefully three banners on the season. They have everything that they need, now they just need to show it.

HOW TO WATCH—BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

#2 Michigan Wolverines @ #1 Minnesota Gophers

Where: 3M Arena at Mariucci, Minneapolis, MN

When: 7 Pm Saturday

TV: Big Ten Network

Stream: Fox Sports App

Radio: 1130 AM/103.5 FM/ I Heart Radio