Photo credit: Mike Miller

Gophers Explode in 2nd, Hang On in 3rd to Win Big Ten Tournament

Victory over Wisconsin likely seals #1 Seed in NCAAs; Jack LaFontaine Named Tournament MVP

South Bend, IN – For the first time since 2016-2017, the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers will be hanging a banner.

The Gophers (23-6-0 Overall) used a big second period to jump out to a commanding 5-1 lead, hanging on to win 6-4 over the Wisconsin Badgers (20-9-1). Wisconsin drew within one at 5-4 in the final minutes of the game, before Minnesota’s Blake McLaughlin scored into the empty net in the final minute to seal the victory.

The key to any game against Wisconsin is to limit the situations in which Cole Caufield can do damage. The Badgers have the most dangerous powerplay in the nation, so Minnesota knew it wanted to stay out of the box and generally be aware of Caufield at all times.

Unfortunately for the Gophers, Sampo Ranta took a boarding infraction early in the first period, giving Wisconsin a chance to set the tone. Minnesota was able to kill 1:21 of PP time before drawing a penalty of their own to even things up, and just seven seconds after the ensuing Gopher powerplay ended, Blake McLaughlin scored to give the Maroon and Gold a 1-0 lead at 10:32.

Blake McLaughlin celebrates the first of his two goal on the night. Photo credit: Mike Miller

The Gophers came out in the second period like a house on fire, and were rewarded early when Mike Koster scored on a wrister from the point to put Minnesota up 2-0. Wisconsin’s Roman Ahcan scored the critical third goal of the game at 12:54 against the run of play to get the Badgers back within one at 2-1, but after peppering Badger goalie Cameron Rowe all period long the floodgates finally opened for the Gophers. Minnesota got goals from Brannon McManus at 15:24, Scott Reedy at 16:49, and Jaxon Nelson at 18:06 to skate into the second intermission with a 5-1 advantage.

With the tournament on the line, a quality team like Wisconsin isn’t going to go gently into the night, and credit the Badgers for fighting back. Minnesota was playing its third game in three nights, plus a bit of extra play in the overtime periods both Sunday and Monday, and it showed as Wisconsin heaped on the pressure and was able to win races and put lots of pucks on the Gopher goal.

The Badgers scored two quick goals early, at 4:08 and 5:34 of the third period, to cut the Gopher lead from four goals to two. Bob Motzko called timeout at that point to try to settle his team down, and it seemed to have an effect, as the Gophers played a more mistake-free brand of hockey the rest of the way.

But you could feel it coming.

Cole Caufield hadn’t done much throughout the game yet, with shutdown defenseman Brock Faber tailing him most of the night. The presumptive Hobey Baker winner usually finds a way to show up at the right moments, and Caufield did for Wisconsin, scoring off a quick faceoff win in the offensive zone with 2:11 left in the period to pull Wisconsin all the way to within one at 5-4.

At that point, it was just a one-shot game.

Wisconsin pulled their goalie in the waning minute plus of the game, but the Minnesota defense didn’t really allow any quality scoring chances, and it was fitting that Minnesota’s best two players on the night had a hand in the game-sealing empty net goal. Jaxon Nelson won a critical defensive zone faceoff in the final minute, and the puck ended up moving towards Wisconsin ice. There, Blake McLaughlin outworked the Badger defenseman and shepherded the puck into the empty net to seal the win for the Gophers at 6-4.

The postseason tournament victory is the Gophers’ first playoff title banner since they won the Big Ten title game in 2014-2015. Minnesota last won any conference title in the 2016-2017 season, winning the regular season crown that year.

The win also should lock up a #1 seed for the Gophers in the NCAA Tournament, who had basically been vying with Wisconsin for that last #1. As of this writing, it’s looking likely that the Gophers will travel either to Loveland, CO as the #1 seed in that region, or out to Albany, NY. North Dakota and Boston College have #1 seeds virtually locked up, with Mankato and Wisconsin in the running for the final #1 spot.

Minnesota’s last #1 seed (and last tournament appearance) was in 2016-2017, when they lost in the opening round to Notre Dame.

The NCAA Selection Show is Sunday at 6PM. The Gophers should find out then where they’ll travel and who they’ll face.

Jack LaFontaine was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, while forwards Sampo Ranta and Sammy Walker as well as defenseman Mike Koster (along with LaFontaine) were named to the All Tournament Team.