Minneapolis, MN – About halfway through the Gophers-Badgers game, Notre Dame was polishing off a 4-1 victory over Big Ten leading Michigan.
After that, Minnesota took care of business.
Behind Ben Meyers’ first career hat trick and Justen Close’s first career shutout, the Gophers (20RW-9RL-2OTW-2OTL Overall, 16-4-1-2 B1G) won Friday’s game 5-0 over the Wisconsin Badgers (7-19-2-2 Overall, 5-14-1-3 B1G). The win gave Minnesota three more points, vaulting them into first place in the conference standings with just one more game remaining. The Gophers control their own destiny in the Big Ten now, with any type of win guaranteeing them at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season title as well as a first-round bye in the conference playoffs.
While Minnesota came out fast, they had a hard time scoring on former Gopher goalie Jared Moe. Moe cuts something of a tragic figure in net for Wisconsin, the victim of Jack LaFontaine’s choice to return to Minnesota. Moe transferred to Wisconsin when LaFontaine announced his return. If not for LaFontaine, it likley would have been Moe between the pipes for the Gophers this season.
However, with the way Justen Close has played in LaFontaine’s absence, Minnesota doesn’t seem to be shedding any tears.
Jonny Sorenson gave the Gophers a 1-0 lead at 6:08 of the first period, firing a quick wrister from the slot that beat Moe stick-side. Although Minnesota controlled the possession and dominated the chances for the first two periods, Moe was solid and kept the clearly outmatched Badgers in the game. Wisconsin’s Sam Stange took a tripping penalty with 36 seconds left in the 2nd, which proved to be the turning point in the game.
Seven seconds into the penalty, Jaxon Nelson (returning after a 13-game absence) tipped home a Jackson LaCombe shot from the point to put Minnesota up 2-0 heading into the second intermission.
In the third period, Ben Meyers took over. The junior captain and presumed top NHL free agent prospect scored thrice in the third, netting a natural hat trick to turn a rather close 2-0 affair into a 5-0 blowout. Meyers now has 22 points (12G-10A) in 18 Big Ten games played, good for T2 in the conference with Michigan’s Luke Hughes and four behind Michigan’s Matty Beniers. Beniers, Meyers, and Matthew Knies are the only Big Ten players averaging more than a point per game.
While the team sparkled in their own zone, credit where it’s due to Justen Close, who recorded his first career shutout Friday night against the Badgers. The junior netminder has risen to the top of the Big Ten in all statistical categories, with a sparkling GAA of 1.83 and an astounding .934 Sv%. Close’s 9 Big Ten wins trail only Ohio State’s Jakub Dobes (13) and Michigan’s Erik Portillo (16) in conference play.
With that, the stage is set for Saturday’s action. Michigan and Notre Dame play at 5PM Central, which means that their game will almost be over by the time the Gophers take the ice. Minnesota holds all the tiebreakers with the Wolverines, so Michigan needs to take at least two points from Notre Dame in order to have a chance at winning the title. A Minnesota regulation win would seal the championship, while an overtime win would guarantee them at least a share of the league title and the first round bye. Any flavor of loss for the Wolverines (regulation or overtime / shootout) guarantees Minnesota the bye and at least a share of the title.
The puck drops tonight at 7PM. Be at Mariucci for a chance to see the Gophers hang a banner. If you can’t make it, the game is on BTN and can be heard on AM1130/FM103.5.