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Gophers lose Big 10 hockey championship to Michigan

Minnesota lost to the University of Michigan in the tournament championship last year with the same final score.
Image by Gopher Athletics
The Gophers’ game against the Michigan Wolverines on Saturday, March 18, 2023 in the Big Ten Tournament Championship. The Gophers lost 4-3. Photo credit to Gopher Athletics.

If there is one Achilles’ heel for the top-ranked Gophers this season, it’s momentary lapses in judgment for short time frames that pull the other team back in the game.

At the conclusion of the first period Saturday against the No. 4 Michigan Wolverines, it was all Minnesota. But in the blink of an eye, Michigan regained momentum in the second period.

The Wolverines rode that wave into the third period, even when they lost the lead, to win their second consecutive Big Ten Tournament Championship 4-3 against the Gophers.

Minnesota starts out strong, but it was not enough

The Gophers haven’t been a first period team this season but were on Saturday. They managed to generate a boatload of scoring chances. The sole shot that went through the net was courtesy of Brody Lamb receiving a breakaway feed from Logan Cooley. The Gophers outshot the Wolverines 7-6 but most of Michigan’s chances were far from wide open like Minnesota’s.

Rutger McGroarty woke the Wolverines up in the second period. Much like Adam Fantilli’s 15-second 2-point stretch in January against Minnesota, McGroarty scored twice Saturday in less than a minute.

The freshman from Lincoln, Nebraska, rebounded an Ethan Edwards shot dead center in front of the net and received a bounce pass off the boards from Fantilli at the left crease. Head coach Bob Motzko blamed some missed defensive assignments on McGroarty’s 34-second highlight reel.

“This is going to help us,” Motzko said. “Not the loss, playing in a tense game. Going into next week…we’ve played two games in 23 days, you can’t necessarily duplicate that in practice.”

Finding those “soft areas,” preached by interim coach Brandon Naurato, was crucial for McGroarty’s offensive outburst. “He’s [Naurato] been telling us to get to the net and just make good things happen when you’re around there,” McGroarty said.

Minnesota has battled back in games all season, and they didn’t quit Saturday, either. Jimmy Snuggerud found Cooley on a 2-0 breakaway to tie the game. Snuggerud and Cooley had to race as fast as they could to the loose puck, saucering closer and closer to Michigan’s goalie, Erik Portillo.

Portillo was an easy target for the Minnesota student section as he continued his trend of directly or indirectly dislodging the net from its pegs on the ice. Ohio State’s Jakub Dobeš also had this in his back pocket as a failsafe whenever the Gophers were within striking distance.

Rhett Pitlick began the third period with an incredible individual effort to deke and dodge two Michigan defenders on a breakaway and capped it off with a goal to give Minnesota a 3-2 edge with 18 minutes to go. This was Pitlick’s second goal since Dec.10.

Wolverines rally for third period comeback 

Michigan continued to capitalize on scoring chances though and would come out winners in the end. A Seamus Casey shot from the blue line tied the game; Motzko challenged it for offsides, however, McGroarty “tagged up” before the puck was touched over the Minnesota blue line. The call stood.

Dylan Duke proceeded to give the lead back to the Wolverines, barely sliding the puck behind Gophers goalie Justen Close as both of them dove at each other in the crease. This was Duke’s fifth goal against the Gophers this year, scoring 4 in their first two meetings at Yost Arena.

“That’s just Duker,” McGroarty said. “He gets greasy once and we love him for it. Big time players score big time goals in big time moments.”

Motzko gave credit to Michigan for generating key turnovers that were crucial for their third period comeback.

Michigan and Minnesota showcase hockey’s future

Nine of 12 All-Big Ten Conference selections (Minnesota: 6, Michigan: 3) and 24 NHL draft picks (Minnesota: 14, Michigan: 10) played in the Big Ten Tournament Championship. The future of the sport laid it all out at Mariucci Arena Saturday before the true gauntlet of the NCAA Tournament.

Michigan is the youngest team in the NCAA with an average age of 21 years old. Minnesota is the next youngest. Most Wolverines, including freshmen McGroarty and Fantilli, were not a member of their 2022 Big Ten Tournament Championship squad.

“You listen to them with every word that they say,” Fantilli said about Michigan’s senior leadership. “Just trying to soak it all in was the biggest thing we could do as freshmen and just copy what they do.”

Fantilli earned Most Outstanding Player of the Big Ten Tournament by breaking the tournament record with a league-high 7 goals and 11 points scored through four games played. Fantilli leads the NCAA in goals (27) and points (61).

Even with Michigan’s victory, Minnesota still retains the overall top-seed in the NCAA tournament. They will be playing their first regional matchup in Fargo, North Dakota, on Thursday.

“It stings, but at the end of the day we’re looking for a bigger trophy,” team captain Brock Faber said. “That’s not going to happen if we don’t learn from this lesson quickly.”

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