Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota and Harrison Barden
Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota and Harrison Barden

Big Ten Black Eye

Minneapolis, MN – Michigan won a 4-3 hockey game Saturday night to claim the Big Ten playoff title. Both teams will move on to play in the NCAA tournament. Those are the facts.

There’s a lot to talk about with the Big Ten title game, and only a small portion of it has to do with the play on the ice.

The Gophers (22RW-10RL-2OTW-2OTL) went up 1-0 in the first minute of the game, before Michigan (28-6-1-3) scored an early goal of their own to even things up.

From then on, the breaks fell Michigan’s way.

The Wolverines scored on a Mike Koster own goal late in the first to go up 2-1, and added two more goals before the 10-minute mark of the 2nd to go up 4-1. The last Michigan goal was scored on the powerplay, more on that momentarily.

The Gophers killed off a Michigan 5×3 midway through the third and scored twice on the power play with the extra attacker in the final minutes, but it was too little too late, and the Wolverines emerged with a 4-3 victory to claim the league playoff title.

That’s the story of the game. But it’s not really the story of what happened.

Mariucci Arena was packed to the gills for this Big Ten title bout, with a full five sections of students along with a sold out arena otherwise. The anticipation was palpable, and Jaxon Nelson’s breakaway goal just 32 seconds into the contest sent the fans into a frenzy.

It’s not hyperbole to state that things went Michigan’s way the entire rest of the night. I’m not one to blame the referees for the outcome of a game, and I don’t think that is what happened here. Michigan is a quality team and they played a good game. In my eyes, they deserved to win.

The referees did not help Minnesota’s cause, though, and slowly got on the ugly side of the raucous home crowd. Penalties were called (and reviewed for majors) against Minnesota that were not as severe looking on replay, while no penalties were called on a handful of “maybe” infractions by the visiting team. When Michigan scored on the powerplay midway through the second to extend their lead to 4-1, the fans let the referees hear it.

Minnesota got its first powerplay of the game after Michigan’s fourth goal, a high-sticking call on Mark Estapa that was the definition of a makeup-call. The penalty would not have been called had the home crowd not been boo-ing and cussing out the referees after the Michigan goal. The Gophers, unfortunately, could not convert on the opportunity.

In the third, Minnesota took nearly back-to-back penalties (Huglen for goaltender interference at 6:33, Nelson for checking-from-behind at 7:00 for 5 and a game) to go down 5×3. The Huglen call was probably the right one, but a bit soft compared to what went uncalled the rest of the game, and the refs could have sent players from both teams for the scrum that ensued after the whistle they only took Huglen to the box. The Nelson call was also likely correct, but at that point there was no appealing to reason for the liquored-up fans, who hurled their beers on the ice in a frenzy of boos, causing a delay as the ice crew came out to scrape up the suds.

The referees really should have called a penalty on the Gophers for delay of game, either then or one of the several drink-throwing occasions to do so later on in the period. I don’t know why they didn’t.

It could have impacted the outcome of the game. The refs finally did call two penalties on Michigan in the dying minutes, and Minnesota wound up scoring twice to draw within one at 4-3. The 3rd Gopher goal game with 5.8 seconds left, so it was too late to really make a comeback bid. Why the referees waited until the score was 4-1 to call the first penalty on Michigan, and why they waited until the final minutes of the third to call the next penalty, I don’t know.

The beer throwing, though, is a first. I’ve never seen anything like it in all my years watching the Gophers. I’ve been struggling with how to react all evening.

I think anyone in my position would be expected to do some obligatory pontificating at this point, and I will do so now. Fans throwing things on the ice has no place in hockey. Players, coaches, refs could have been injured; it is a black eye for Minnesota Gopher hockey, and we have some soul searching to do.

The competing thought I’ve had since the game ended, though, is this: should we have expected anything different? These people were pre-gaming at the tailgate, or at the bar, or (in the case of the students) on frat row. Their inhibitions were already lowered, and they likely drank a beer or two at the game as well. This was perhaps the most anticipated game at Mariucci Arena in the past 20 years – it was the largest announced crowd in arena history. Add to that concoction a game that’s not going the home team’s way, along with a series of calls and non-calls that may feel lean in one team’s favor, and plentiful beer being sold in the arena itself, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

I hate to come down on the pre-game planning, because by all accounts the Gopher Hockey marketing team worked wonders to fill the rink and give the game a real party atmosphere. I think the tailgate was a good idea in concept, and honestly hats off to them for getting as many butts in the seats as they did. Lord knows Mariucci is a more fun place to be when it’s not half empty, and hopefully at least that portion of what happened tonight carries forward.

I think there’s more to it than alcohol, though, something deeper that feels like it’s on the tip of my tongue. People have been pent up with the pandemic for so long, it seems like they need some outlet to express their frustration, and it just so happens that this was the venue for that frustration tonight.

Maybe that’s it; maybe I’m way off. Either way, what happened tonight was unsettling, and ugly, and will sit with me for a long time.

Michigan finishes the season as the #1 overall team in the pairwise, and will likely face Harvard in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Minnesota ended up dropping to 6th place, and will probably join Western Michigan (the #3 overall seed) somewhere out east next weekend. Minnesota’s first round opponent will be selected Sunday evening on the NCAA Selection show, televised on ESPNU.