Minneapolis, Minn. — Nothing has come easy for Gopher hockey this season, but their leaders stepped up Saturday as Leon Bristedt, Hudson Fasching and Justin Kloos all scored goals in a Big Ten title clinching 4-1 win over Wisconsin in front of 10,383 at Mariucci Arena.
The regular season title was the program’s fifth consecutive including the last two WCHA titles and the first three Big Ten titles. Boston University is the only other Division I hockey program to have won five straight conference titles.
“It doesn’t matter what people say about championships, we’re going to enjoy this one,” said Kloos. “They are always hard to come by, if they’re easy to win you know everyone would win one every year.”
Gophers coach Don Lucia joked that he thought he wore out his cattle prod this year as the team had to integrate 10 new players into his lineup this season.
“It hasn’t been easy, let’s put it that way,” said Lucia. “There’s been a lot of talks, and pushing, and video, but to our guys leaders and to our kids credit they accepted it and in an important game they found a way to win.”
Minnesota controlled play during the first period outshooting Wisconsin 17-4, but it was the Badgers getting the first goal of the game. Cameron Hughes won a draw in his own zone, Jake Linhart defensemen reversed the puck behind the net to Eddie Wittchow, and the defenseman fired a pass to Luke Kunin who flew the zone on the drop of the puck. Kunin slipped behind the Gopher defense and beat Eric Schierhorn with a low shot for his 18th goal of the season at 7:48.
“We’ve let up some of those goals this year, where we just kind of have some giveaway goals where we let them have it easy–so we’re kind of used to it I guess a little bit,” said Fasching. “But we were playing really well–so we came to the locker room and we honestly felt pretty good. We felt good about the way we were playing, we felt good about the chances we were creating.”
The Gophers have had plenty of success scoring short-handed goals this season and Bristedt delivered their eighth shorty of the season 2:28 into the second period. Bristedt found himself opposite Kunin on a one-on-one opportunity, walked the forward, and then slipped the puck five-hole on Matt Jurusik to tie the game at one. The goal was Bristedt’s 18th of the season.
The team’s leading goal-scorer got his 20th of the season on the power play early in the third period. Jake Bischoff one-timed a blast off a Kloos pass from the point. Jurusik got a pad on the shot fighting thru a screen by Bristedt and Fasching, but Fasching got to the rebound first and tucked a backhander into the corner at 4:33 to give Minnesota a 2-1 lead.
Specialty teams had been an issue coming into Saturday’s game, but Minnesota seemed to erase those memories when they added their second power play goal and third of the game midway through the third period. The Gophers worked the puck low in the zone as Bristedt touched a pass from the right wing circle to Tommy Novak along the goal line. Novak threaded a pass across the crease onto the tape of Kloos, and the captain made no doubt wristing the puck into the net for his 15th goal of the season at 7:39.
“Last week in practice every day for like 10 to 45 minutes it felt like, we were working on power play,” said Fasching. “Just making the rhythms, just feeling where we had lanes, where we had options, but I think where it really came down to was just our effort–how much we were willing to work and willing to get pucks back.”
Wisconsin made a push in the final minutes after Steve Johnson took a hooking penalty with 3:20 to go in the game and the Badgers pulled their goalie for the extra attacker. They pressured Minnesota for nearly two minutes until Nick Seeler blocked a Kunin one-timer, then won a battle from him for a loose puck in the corner. The puck spilled out to Bristedt, the Swede carried the puck into the neutral zone, and put it into the empty net for his 19th of the season. The Seeler shot block was the 15th blocked shot of the game, and Lucia said that kind of sellout and extra effort was the piece missing from their game on Friday.
Ryan Coyne took the net for the final 59 seconds as Minnesota closed out senior night by giving their senior goalie his first shift in the net at Mariucci Arena. Lucia said that Schierhorn came over to the bench after the empty net goal and asked for the senior to take his place.
Michigan left no doubt in their regular season finale against Penn State, pulling away for an easy 6-1 win and the second seed for next week. The Big Ten Tournament match-ups for Thursday night are set; Wisconsin (6) will play Penn State (3) with the winner playing Michigan (2), and Michigan State (5) will play Ohio State (4) for the right to play Minnesota (1) at 7:30 at Xcel Energy Center.
On winning the conference Lucia told his team to enjoy it, but then Monday the team has to get back to work knowing just like last year they have to win the tournament to advance to the NCAA Tournament. Lucia thinks the conference tournament could be wide open this year because all of the teams except Michigan need to win for an NCAA berth and many of those teams are playing their best hockey of the season at the end. Regardless of what happens next weekend, the team took advantage to hang another banner this season with their win Saturday.
“Every year, every day, you want to win,” said Bristedt. “You can never get enough of it. Winning is what we are here for and that’s what the program is about.”