Minneapolis, MN – In a year of chaos and upheaval across nearly all facets of society, it’s nice to know that some things remain the same.
Perhaps the weirdest thing about the 2020-2021 Gopher hockey season is how similarly the end of the regular season played out to early 2020. Then, the Gophers hosted Michigan in the final regular season game with the Big Ten title on the line. Then, Minnesota needed a win and a tie to claim at least a share of the conference title. Then, Michigan took 5 of 6 points to prevent the Gophers from hanging a banner.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Minnesota again hosted Michigan in the 2021 regular season finale with the conference title on their sticks. After a mediocre effort and little puck luck Friday resulted in a loss, the Gophers (20-6-0 Overall, 16-6-0 B1G) could only hope that Wisconsin would drop a game against an abysmal Michigan State squad. They did not, so even though Minnesota came back to beat the Michigan Wolverines (14-9-1, 11-9-0) Saturday evening, the damage was done, and the Badgers will get to hang a conference title banner in the Kohl Center next year.
Minnesota last played two weeks ago in a sweep of the Spartans, but Penn State’s COVID situation meant the Gophers got an unexpected week off in the penultimate series of the season. Any worries of rust were quickly abated in Friday’s first period, as Minnesota came out blazing, putting 16 shots on goal to Michigan’s five and generally dominating the possession and the scoring chances.
It’s the big numbers on the scoreboard that count, though, and even though Minnesota had the best of the chances and shots, including an early 5-on-3 advantage, it was Michigan that scored on a late powerplay to take a 1-0 lead into the locker room.
Minnesota tied it up midway through the second on a hard-working goal from Bryce Brodzinski, but Michigan answered with a goal two-and-a-half minutes later from stickhandling phenom Kent Johnson, and scored a backbreaker on a one-timer from Jack Summers in the final minute of the period to expand the lead to 3-1 going into the third period.
In the final frame, Minnesota’s Sampo Ranta sniped the corner with eight minutes left in the period to get Minnesota within one, but again just three minutes later Michigan scored on a fortunate bounce off the post right to Nick Granowicz in the slot to again give the Wolverines a two-goal cushion. Michigan tacked on an empty netter to finish off the game at 5-2.
The Wolverines’ Strauss Mann was brilliant in net, stopping 28 of 30 Gopher shots for the win. Friday’s contest was one of the few games in which Minnesota senior goaltender Jack LaFontaine was outplayed. LaFontaine gave up four goals on 18 shots in a losing effort.
Saturday’s game was a 4PM start, but Minnesota didn’t seem the worse for wear, coming out with a strong game plan and executing well. The Gophers got on the board first late in the opening period when Bryce Brodzinski scored his second goal of the weekend at 16:25 to give Minnesota a 1-0 lead. Like they’d been doing all weekend, though, Michigan responded right away, with Nick Blankenburg rifling a high shot from the point past LaFontaine just 55 seconds later to tie it at 1-1.
Minnesota got the only goal of the second period on the powerplay at 11:36 when Scott Reedy’s wrister from the left-wing circle beat Michigan goalie Mann under the crossbar.
The Gophers got their first comfortable lead of the series early in the third, when Blake McLaughlin’s one-timer beat Mann on the near-side post at 3:39 of the final frame to put Minnesota up 3-1. Michigan’s Jack Becker scored to make things interesting at 17:03 of the third, but the Wolverines were unable to score the rest of the way, despite some quality scoring chances with the goalie pulled.
Ryan Johnson scored again for the Gophers at 18:23 of the third, with a shot all the way down the length of the ice into the empty net. Surprisingly, the goal was Johnson’s first as a Gopher. The sophomore defenseman and first-round NHL draft pick has been a force on both sides of the ice throughout his career in the Maroon and Gold, and it is a nice monkey off the back of a player that clearly deserved to get off the schneid.
Minnesota enters the Big Ten tournament as the #2 seed, behind Wisconsin and ahead of #3 Michigan. The Gophers will travel to South Bend next Sunday to play the first of three one-game tournament matchups. First up for Minnesota will be the Big Ten’s cellar-dwelling Michigan State Spartans. The Spartans were 5-16-1 in Big Ten play, and have lost six straight and nine of 10 coming into the tournament. Assuming the Gophers win, Minnesota will face the winner of Michigan and Ohio State in the semifinals, while Wisconsin would battle the winner of Notre Dame and Penn State.
At this point, it looks like the Big Ten will be represented by three teams in the NCAA tournament: Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. However, if one of the other four teams were to win the Big Ten tournament, they would earn an automatic bid into the big dance, and could potentially knock out the third Big Ten team (or potentially another national team vying for one of the last autobids).
Saturday was Senior Night for Minnesota’s five seniors: Goaltender Jack LaFontaine; forwards Scott Reedy, Brannon McManus, and Cullen Munson; and defenseman Sam Rossini. All five senior skaters played Saturday night, and each has been a credit to the “M” on the front of the jersey these last four years (or two, in LaFontaine’s case). Thank you to Jack, Scott, Brannon, Cullen, and Sam for your careers wearing the Maroon and Gold!