Three-hundred sixty-four days ago these two teams where in the exact same place looking for the exact same goal. In the 2022 version the Michigan Wolverines jumped out to a 4-1 lead and hung on for a 4-3 win to earn the Big Ten Hockey Tournament Championship on the Minnesota Gophers home ice. In 2023, many of the names are the same. The jerseys will be the same. The seeds—same. The results—well Minnesota hopes that will not be the same as they look to win their second banner this season on their quest for three.
In what will be the final game on the famed Olympic Ice Sheet at 3M Arena at Mariucci, it only seems appropriate to have two up and down skating offensive teams face off for a trophy. The top two offensive teams in the nation— both averaging an identical 4.11 goals per game will have one last time on the big sheet to create offense with extra space and try and claim their team a trophy.
But where the Gophers have an advantage with with their defense. Minnesota has allowed 50 less goals this season than the Wolverines in two less games. Their 2.23 goals allowed per game leads the Big Ten and ranks them #7 in the nation while the Wolverines allow 3.19 goals per game—44th in the country. Special teams are much of the same. Minnesota and Michigan have highly ranked power plays with the Gophers #7 in the nation at 25.21% and Michigan #16 at 23.18%. But the penalty kill is a different story. Minnesota is now #15 in the nation at 82..8%, while the Wolverines languish way back in 51st place k8lling just 76.65% of penalties this season. Minnesota is one of the nations least penalized teams ay under eight penalty minutes per game while Michigan is the second most penalized team in the nation averaging nearly 17 and a half minutes per game. Minnesota was 6-19 in the regular season on the powerplay against the Wolverines, and to win on Saturday probably will need to score at least one or two power play goals.
A lot of the reason for the Gophers success is their defensive corps—a mix of veteran and freshmen who are not plying like freshmen. The Gophers should have a full set of defensemen for the first time in nearly a month Saturday night as Bob Motzko said in practice on Thursday that Jackson LaCombe who has missed the last three weeks with a lower body injury is back to health and should play on Saturday. Add him to a group that got Ryan Chesley back last weekend for the Big Ten semifinals against Michigan State and Minnesota can play their usual seven defensemen and feel comfortable matching up against the highly talented Wolverines forwards.
It is a matchup of some of the nation’s best forwards Saturday between freshman Adam Fantilli of Michigan and the Go[hers top line of Logan Cooley, Jimmy Snuggerud and Mathew Knies. Knies is the Big Ten Player of the Year while Fantilli was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Cooley joins those two as Top Ten Finalists for the Hobey Baker Award. Fantilli leads the nation in scoring with 60 points on the season and nine power play goals. Cooley and Snuggerud are 4th and 5th in the nation with 50 and 48 points respectively. But Knies is the Gophers MVP. The nations leader in game-winning goals with seven, he always has the puck on his stick at the right time. He scored the OT winner for the Gophers against the Wolverines back in January at 3M Arena at Mariucci and will be someone the Wolverines will try and mark all night long
If it becomes a goalie battle, the Gophers should have the slight advantage there as well. Justen Close has been incredibly strong if not spectacular for the Gophers this season as he comes into Saturday night ranked #4 in the nation in goals assist average at 1.95 and is tied for third in save percentage at .929. Erik Portillo for Michigan has not has a great season and is 61st in the nation with a 3.09 GAA and 46th in the country in save percentage with a .907 save percentage. But Portillo does have the Mariucci goal pegs going for him. He pushed the Gopher student section into a near riot a year ago after he pushed the net off the pegs in the student section end off repeatedly with no call from the officials. he did the same when the Wolverines came to Minneapolis for their regular season series in January. He will do it again on Saturday. It will just be how much the referees will let him get away with it, and hw hard the Gophers fans will ride him that will be a potential factor.
Minnesota took three of four regular season meetings from Michigan this season earning a sweep against a shorthanded Wolverine team in Ann Arbor in the fall before splitting in Minneapolis back in January in a pair of thrilling overtime games. Despite the Gophers dominating the team stats, this is still a very dangerous Michigan team that will most likely be a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and has played the Gophers tight when their team has been near full strength this season. Nothing is a given on Saturday except the Gopher crowd will be loud, hopefully dressed in gold as Minnesota is trying a Gold Out for the game, and ready to try and see their team win banner #2 on the season.
Minnesota does not need to worry about winning to lock up the #1 overall NCAA Tournament seed on Saturday. Thanks to Colgate’s double overtime win over Quinnipiac in the ECAC semifinals on Friday, the Gophers are locked into the #1 overall NCAA seed. They will most likely face the winner of Saturday night’s Atlantic Hockey Championship game between Canisius and Holy Cross in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Gophers are most likely set to play in Fargo next week, something that was aided when North Dakota lost in overtime to St. Cloud State in the NCHC semifinals Friday night ending their season.
Michigan is still playing for a #1 seed. They will either be the #4 or #5 overall seed depending on the results of the game Saturday and how Boston University fairs in the Hockey East Championship game against Merrimack.
Hopefully the Gophers can reverse the script from last year and add banner #2 to the rafters next fall.