Gophers Hang Another Banner
Detroit, Mich. -- Seth Ambroz, Travis Boyd, Christian Isackson, Ben Marshall, Kyle Rau, and Sam Warning accomplished something that no previous Gopher class had ever done by winning a fourth consecutive regular season title last weekend. This weekend they accomplished something they had never done.
Minnesota (23-12-3 overall) defeated Michigan (22-15-0) 4-2 at Joe Louis Arena in front of 6,355 at Joe Louis Arena to secure an NCAA Tournament bid as an auto qualifier and win their class’ first tournament title and the program’s first ever Big Ten tournament title.
“That’s always the goal when the year begins is to try to hang a banner. We hung two this week,” said Don Lucia. “This group of seniors has five in their back pocket, which is pretty darned good, and now we get an opportunity to play in the NCAA.”
The Gophers fell out of the PairWise and tumbled out of the polls after a November-January stretch that saw them lose to Minnesota Duluth three times, Northeastern, Merrimack, Michigan twice, Minnesota State, and tie Wisconsin. Those performances paired with a substandard non-conference by the Big Ten left them on the outside looking in at an NCAA at-large bid.
The team then played well down the stretch going 10-3-1 to win the regular season title and then two wins at Joe Louis Arena to secure their post-season place.
“Two months ago, who thought we would be here? We stuck together in the locker room. There was a whole process and we believed in what coach was teaching us,” said Rau. “Nobody gave up and we stuck together. We knew that sooner or later, we would start putting wins together and that's what we did.”
Minnesota showed jump right from the drop of the opening faceoff as Hudson Fasching and Leon Bristedt fore checked the Michigan defense hard. The team generated 20 shots in the first 20 minutes, but were unable to solve Michigan goalie Steve Racine.
“Any time you get 20 shots, we're really happy with our effort,” said Rau. “We knew we needed to get more guys in front of the net and try to make them move a little bit.”
Minnesota squandered away two first period power plays, but for their first opportunity in the second period the top unit started working the puck below the hash marks. Rau slid a pass across the front of the net to Boyd coming down from his off wing spot. The pass forced Racine to push across the crease, Boyd just barely got enough of the puck on his one-timer, and it beat the goalie for Boyd’s 18th goal of the season.
The Gophers took some soft penalties during the second period though and the Wolverines took advantage. Zach Hyman beat three Gophers on his way in from the left wing wall to even the game at 3:56. Alex Kile’s redirection of a shot headed wide at 6:14 gave Michigan a brief lead.
“We knew they were a fast team, we were going to have to adjust from playing Michigan State to playing them,” said Hyman. “And after the break, we got adjusted and we acquainted with their speed, and second period it was pretty even.”
Minnesota had controlled much of the five-on-five play throughout the game though and finally executed on an odd man rush. Leon Bristedt took a hit in the neutral zone from a Michigan defenseman, but the puck got through, and springed Hudson Fasching and Kyle Rau on a two-on-one rush. Rau moved the puck to Fasching on the right wing, who moved the puck right back to Rau in the middle, and Rau buried his chance to tie the game for his 20th goal of the season.
Minnesota’s Justin Kloos scored the game-winner 9:29 into the third period with the highlight play of the game. Kloos skated past a Michigan defender on the ice attempting a shot block, then changed the angle on the goalie already dropped into his butterfly, and fired the puck into the lower right corner for his 13th goal of the season.
Boyd added his second empty netter of the weekend, again from his own zone. Only this time he wasn’t on the penalty kill.
“Tonight, we knew that there's some chance we couldn't make the tournament if we didn't win. But we didn't want to leave it up to chance,” said Rau. “We controlled our own destiny and I thought we came out and played really good defensive hockey... when we had our full team effort going, I think we're a tough team to beat.”
Minnesota enters selection Sunday as 10th ranked team in the PairWise, the only Big Ten team with a bid, for their 36th NCAA tournament appearance. It’s an especially clouded bracket this season as the NCHC has six teams #2 North Dakota, #4 Miami, #5 Denver, #6 Minnesota-Duluth, #9 Nebraska-Omaha, and #12 St. Cloud State, and the WCHA has #1 Minnesota State and #7 Michigan Tech.
If bracket integrity is the priority, then Minnesota will face Michigan Tech in the first round and get placed in the same regional as North Dakota. If the committee decides that they need to avoid conference matchups in the first round, then the committee will have to separate the Denver-St. Cloud State match-up. How the committee would re-work the bracket is so complicated that USCHO’s Jason Moy, a bracketology expert, is holding back his projections much later than usual.
The selection show airs on Sunday, March 22 at 11 AM CT on ESPNU.
GOLDEN NUGGETS: “I have great respect for their team, their program and their coaches. Over the years they have been one of my favorite teams to play as a coach because we play a similar way,” said Lucia. “We want to get up and down and we want make plays, and there's a lot of great plays made out there tonight. Both goaltenders played well and fortunately for us, we made the play in the third period to win it...” Michigan 22-15-0 Overall (12-8-0 Conference) finished 19th in the final PairWise, and missed the tournament for the third straight season following up their run of 22 consecutive appearances… There were nine power play chances in the game, four for Michigan and five for Minnesota, “I don't know if they were good penalties or not,” said Red Berenson. “Some of them, we couldn't see. Some of them made me draw the penalty because of their speed, but we weren't trying to take penalties, believe me, we were trying to play a five-on-five game.”