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Minnesota Hockey: Gophers come up short a second year in a row in Big Ten Championship with another 4-3 loss to Michigan

The Gophers came close of capturing revenge, but blew a 3-2 third period lead en route to loss

MINNEAPOLIS — For three minutes and 33 seconds, Rhett Pitlick was on the verge of being the unlikely hero for the University of Minnesota Gophers hockey team in their rematch of last year’s Big Ten Championship game against the Michigan Wolverines inside 3M Arena at Mariucci.

The Montreal Canadiens draft pick and product of Chaska High School had just one goal in the previous 15 games since the new calendar year and wouldn’t have been expected to be among the favorites to help the Gophers reclaim their first period lead they blew.

Yet not only did Pitlick score the go-ahead goal which gave the Gophers a 3-2 lead with 18:03 left in the third period, but he scored arguably the best goal of the season for Minnesota. The 22-year-old, who received a feed from Bryce Brodzinski back in the defensive zone, rushed up the ice and went back and forth against Michigan defender Steven Holtz. The subtle stick moves sent Holtz to the ground and Pitlick capitalized, scoring high blocker against Michigan goaltender Erik Portillo.

“I think obviously they’re talented players and those moments are cool,” Gophers senior defender Jackson LaCombe, who returned from injury, said of the goals, “(but) it’s just as a team, we just got to kind of clean up in some areas...”

Pitlick’s highlight reel goal wasn’t enough, however, for the Gophers to execute revenge against the Wolverines in their 4-3 loss, the same score on the same stage a year ago.

“It stings,” Gophers captain Brock Faber said, “but at the end of the day, we’re looking for a bigger trophy, and that’s not going to happen if we don’t learn this lesson pretty quick here.”

The Gophers took a 1-0 lead at the 13:08 mark of the first period when Logan Cooley and Brody Lamb teamed up to block a shot in the defensive zone. The duo went on a partial 2-on-1 rush, and Lamb found the back of the net after receiving a feed from Cooley. It was only the second shot Portillo faced.

The Gophers failed to convert on their power play opportunity with 4:31 left in the first period, but they still went into the first intermission with a 1-0 lead.

But the Wolverines, who looked disorganized in the first, quickly stole momentum about three minutes into the middle frame. Winnipeg Jets prospect, Rutger McGroarty, scored two goals just 34 seconds apart. The first second-period marker came from the low slot after Cal Thomas turned the puck over in the corner and failed to cover Gavin Brindley, who notched the primary helper on the goal, behind the net. The second came after a fortuitous bounce off the boards that landed on McGroarty’s stick at the side of the net.

“We missed a couple (defensive) assignments,” Gophers head coach Bob Motzko said. ... “Our whole game plan was to limit our mistakes — and unfortunately we didn’t do it.”

Minnesota nearly took a 3-2 lead with 8:47 left in the second thanks to an individual effort by Matthew Knies, who caught the puck in the air in the neutral zone and evaded multiple Wolverines en route to a 1-on-1 chance with Portillo in front. While he didn’t score, it drew a penalty, a man advantage Minnesota didn’t capitalize on. But the Gophers did eventually reclaim the lead back when Pitlick scored, which increased their odds of winning the Big Ten Championship with how the game was heading.

But less than four minutes later, the Wolverines halted momentum and responded — once again. Seamus Casey’s shot from the top of the offensive zone got past Justen Close, who looked to be screened on the play. The Gophers challenged for offsides — in what was a close one — but it was deemed onside.

“It looks like they might have got the call right,” Motzko said.

Then Michigan’s Dylan Duke slid the puck past Close from the blue paint with Faber covering him for the eventual game winner with 8:14 left on the clock.

Minnesota didn’t have any late game magic left in the tank with an extra attacker like they’ve executed several times this season. In all, Michigan had a 32-25 shot advantage and 61-50 favor in shot attempts.

Now their focus moves to the NCAA tournament.

“This is going to help us,” Motzko said. “Not the loss; the loss stings...(but) playing an intense game.”