Gophers clinch NCAA tourney bid

Minnesota beat Michigan in the Big Ten tournament title game Saturday.

Ben Gotz

The puck’s path to Justin Kloos’ stick on Saturday had as many bumps as the Gophers’ current season.

With a third-period power play winding down for Minnesota, tied 2-2 in the Big Ten tournament championship game with Michigan, Kloos was pressed near the top of the circle with the puck.

He attempted to shovel it over to sophomore defenseman Michael Brodzinski, who had to stretch to keep it in the offensive zone.

The puck made its way to freshman forward Leon Bristedt, who tapped it back to Kloos. Kloos danced around one defender and scored the game-winning goal in Minnesota’s 4-2 victory.

The puck’s bumpy path, along with the Gophers’ rocky season, got the team to the same place: its first conference tournament title since 2007 and an automatic NCAA tournament berth.

“I’m happy for our guys because they experienced something they had not experienced before,” head coach Don Lucia told reporters after Saturday’s game. “This group has certainly had a taste of a lot of banners, a lot of championships, and they have been a fun group. This year, it’s been obviously a journey and we’ve been up and down, but the guys stayed with it.”

The Gophers didn’t need to win in their conference tournament the past three years to make the NCAA field. But this year, they had more work to do in the tournament.

The victory over Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament semifinal made it likely the Gophers would make the field, regardless of their result against Michigan. But another victory resulted in a no-sweat selection Sunday.

“We knew going into Ohio State, we needed to come out and get a win,” senior captain Kyle Rau told reporters after the game. “We knew that there’s some chance we couldn’t make the tournament if we didn’t win, but we didn’t want to leave it up to chance.”

The team recorded 20 shots on goal to Michigan’s seven in the first period, but both teams came away scoreless.

“Even though it was 0-0, the mood was kind of like we were up a goal or two, just because of how we were playing,” junior goaltender Adam Wilcox told reporters after the game. “We knew our whole team was on our game, and we were going to eventually get some goals.”

The Gophers eventually got the first goal when senior forward Travis Boyd struck on the power play. But Michigan’s power plays allowed the team to score twice and take a 2-1 lead.

Rau tied the game before the end of the second period, and before Kloos knocked in the game-winner on the power play. Boyd added a long empty-net goal to seal the victory, and the Gophers received new hats and hardware for the second consecutive week.

Though the team’s season had its ups and downs, it resulted in a Big Ten regular season and conference tournament title. And now, the Gophers are heading to the NCAA tournament in New Hampshire to face in-state rival, Minnesota-Duluth.

“Two months ago, who thought we would be here?” Rau said. “We knew that sooner or later, we would start putting wins together, and that’s what we did. Now, we’re taking our stride in the tournament … and we feel really good about our game.”