St. Paul, Minn. – Expectations are always high at Minnesota, players and fans expect the program to win banners every season, but the 2015-16 team will have to just settle for one as they fell 5-3 to Michigan in front of 6,180 at Xcel Energy Center in the Big Ten Tournament final.
Minnesota (20-17-0) sits on the outside of the PairWise rankings at #18 heading into selection Sunday, and it’s streak of four post-season appearances comes to a close. While losing to No. 7 Michigan (24-7-5) ended the season, losing leads and overtime losses to Minnesota State and Harvard cost the Gophers their chance for an at-large bid.
“We knew when the year began that we had all these players to put in different roles like Justin talked about,” said Don Lucia. “Freshman goaltender, three new defensemen that were going to be playing, different guys on the power play, six freshman forwards playing at times. We had a difficult schedule, but that’s the type of schedule we want to have, we want to play good teams.”
The Gophers lost eight players to professional hockey from last year’s season and many players were forced into new roles that nearly overwhelmed them early on.
“I was put in a position where I really needed to step up and play well. And I didn’t carry my weight so well the first two months,” said captain Justin Kloos. “It’s a growing curve, I had never been a first line center in college hockey and this year I got put in that position. As the season moved forward I got more comfortable and started doing what I had to do to help this team win.”
Minnesota did rally to win their fifth consecutive regular season title, something that Michigan couldn’t do despite the top scoring offense in the nation at 4.89 goals per game, a power play that operated above 30% efficiency, and a line featuring three players in the Hobey Baker Ten.
“It’s hard to do. I mean, hey, that was a pretty good team out there [in Michigan]. They didn’t win at over 20 games, we did,” said Lucia. “And that’s a credit to our guys and to watch how we, you know, played against them.”
Minnesota played a conservative first period getting outshot 10-6 by Michigan, but Tyler Motte scored his 30th goal of the season on the power play. Michigan added another power play goal early in the second when JT Compher tallied his 14th goal of the season. Then the Gophers responded with three goals of their own from Leon Bristedt’s 20th, Jake Bischoff’s 6th, and Kloos’ 16, giving them a 3-2 lead heading into the third period.
Kyle Connor hid himself somehow from Minnesota early in the third period, and popped out to catch a pass from Compher and outwait Eric Schierhorn to score his 35th goal of the season–Michigan’s only even strength goal of the game. The Wolverines’ Zach Werenski scored the go-ahead and game winning goal on the power play with 4:33 remaining. It was Michigan’s third goal in four opportunities with the man advantage.
“When we’ve been able to shut the door on the penalty kill we’ve won most nights. I knew that was going to be critical, they were too talented to probably keep them to zero, but we were hoping we could maybe hold them to one tonight, maybe 1-2 or 1-3,” said Lucia. “But we took a couple penalties that we probably didn’t need to take and you’re just playing with fire when you give them that many opportunities.”
Minnesota gave a hard push during the third period outshooting Michigan 17-13, but came up short giving losing a puck to Tyler Motte as he scored his 31st goal of the season on an empty netter.
“We played our hearts out,” said Bischoff. “But I think we had some opportunities that we let go earlier in the season–especially for the PairWise.”
Minnesota loses three seniors to graduation AJ Michaelson, Ryan Coyne, and Ryan Reilly. It’s still unclear which players may leave early for professional hockey, but junior Hudson Fasching is expected to receive the most pressure from Buffalo to sign early. Other flight risks rumored have been Nick Seeler to Minnesota and Michael Brodzinski to San Jose.
“I think we will be pretty intact,” said Bischoff. “It’s hard to tell right now exactly what will happen. But I think we’ll have a good core group coming back for sure next year. And I’m looking forward to it.”