Familiarity and fireworks as Gophers, Wolverines meet again with B1G tournament title at stake
Both rosters are filled with future NHLers and many are former teammates as Minnesota tries to hang its second banner of the season with a win in the Big Ten tournament title game versus Michigan.
MINNEAPOLIS — In less than a week, all of the most advanced bracketologists predict that the Minnesota Gophers will be at a NCAA regional site, preparing to face an opponent that the current players have never before seen, from a school that most fans couldn’t locate on a map.
But before all of that, there is a trophy up for grabs, with perhaps the most familiar of opponents standing in the way.
Minnesota and Michigan have a hockey rivalry that dates back a century, to Jan. 22, 1923, when the Gophers posted a 2-0 win in Minneapolis. But in terms of the history that dates back to around the time of the pandemic, they may be even more familiar. Minnesota star forward Matthew Knies, who was named the Big Ten’s player of the year earlier in the week, estimates that he has been teammates with six or seven of the Wolverines at various points in his young hockey career.
“I know a good chunk of their team. I’ve been on the World Junior team with a lot of them, seeing them around, and we play them almost every other weekend in this conference,” Knies said. “We know each other well.”
Gophers captain Brock Faber said he has shared a locker room with Wolverines like Luke Hughes, Jacob Truscott and Dylan Duke previously.
With that in mind, after meeting head-to-head four times in the regular season, there is not a great deal of scouting or detailed video breakdown needed to prepare for that team in maize and blue.
“They look like Michigan to me,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said, noting that this year’s team under interim coach Brandon Naurato plays a very similar style to the 2022 Wolverines — a team that won the Big Ten tournament and advanced to the Frozen Four under Mel Pearson, who was fired in early August.
"We've been seeing that for decades," Motzko said of the Wolverines' traditional style. "Get off to fast starts ... they play north-south great, tons of talent. It looks like Michigan."
Since the calendar flipped to March, the Wolverines have been an offensive juggernaut, scoring 20 goals in their three previous playoff games. Both rosters are loaded with NHL draft picks and the game will feature three of the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award in Knies and Logan Cooley from the Gophers and Adam Fantilli from the Wolverines. The Michigan coach predicts an on-ice product reflective of that talent, played in an atmosphere that is hard to beat in the college hockey world.
Nation's leading scorer Adam Fantilli is a Hobey Baker Finalist!— Michigan Hockey (@umichhockey) March 15, 2023
Read >> https://t.co/ktHzT11etI#GoBlue pic.twitter.com/PlXkrlBcV3
“I think there's mutual respect for how they play the game and how we play the game. It's just good hockey,” said Naurato, who was an assistant coach under Pearson for last season’s 4-3 Wolverines win in this game in Minneapolis. “And that's not a knock on anyone else. But it should be a really, really fun game to watch and last year that place was jammed with 10,000 people there for warm ups.”
Testing all of that Michigan offense will be a Gophers back end that Motzko expects will be fully healthy and ready to go. That means in addition to Faber (who played in the playoff opener after a flu bug caused him to drop 14 pounds in a week) and Ryan Chesley (who returned last week from a hand injury that had him out of the lineup for four games) the Gophers expect that senior All America defenseman Jackson LaCombe will be in uniform and ready to go. LaCombe had missed the previous three games after a non-contact lower body injury incurred at a team practice.
Factor in a healthy Gophers defense, an explosive Gophers offense and an opponent in Michigan that can shoot and score from anywhere, and the title clash has the makings of some memorable, explosive hockey, with the winner hoisting a trophy when the final horn sounds.
“These are the fun ones. Obviously it’s turned into quite the rivalry,” Faber said. “They don’t like us. We don’t like them. It’s fun. It’s going to be loud in there this weekend and we’ve just got to play our game.”
B1G championship details
Minnesota and Michigan will face off at 7 p.m. CT on Saturday evening at 3M Arena at Mariucci. The game will be televised by Big Ten Network, with Dan Kelly and former Gophers defenseman Ben Clymer on the call.
On radio, the Gophers can be heard on 1130 AM / 103.5 FM in the Twin Cities with Wally Shaver and Frank Mazzocco in their 11th season together describing the action.
✨𝔾𝕆𝕃𝔻 𝕆𝕌𝕋✨— Minnesota Men’s Hockey (@GopherHockey) March 15, 2023
Make sure to rock your gold for the B1G championship on Saturday! One last ride at 3MAM this year, let's blow the roof off!
(and don't worry, our visitors from Ann Arbor won't be wearing their corn jerseys) pic.twitter.com/2ugIOycUxH
The Gophers are 153-134-18 all-time versus the Wolverines, which includes a 3-1 mark this season. Minnesota won a pair of games at Yost Ice Arena in November, when both rosters were reduced due to illness. The teams split a pair of overtime games in Minneapolis in January.
The championship game was completely sold out by Monday of this week. As of Friday morning, tickets on the secondary market were priced from around $90 to more than $600. Gophers athletic marketing folks have declared Saturday a “Gold Out” and are encouraging Minnesota fans to wear gold to the rink. Each of the arena's 10,000 seats was adorned with a gold pom-pom as of the Gophers' practice on Thursday.