Michigan spoils the Gophers' party to claim B1G playoff title
Before a record-setting audience in Minneapolis, the Michigan Wolverines erased an early Minnesota Gophers lead and claimed the Big Ten playoff title.
MINNEAPOLIS – Have you ever had one of those nights where you have a bunch of friends come visit, ready for some fun, and then a group of unruly guests spoils all the good times? If so, you understand how the Minnesota Gophers and their fans feel after Saturday night’s Big Ten playoff championship game.
With a noisy, record-breaking audience on hand and a trophy at stake, the visiting Michigan Wolverines offered little for the home fans to cheer about. Michigan erased an early Gophers lead and survived a late Gophers rally for a 4-3 win to claim the conference’s post-season title.
Mackie Samoskevich had a goal and an assist for the Wolverines, who will be a number one seed in the NCAA tournament when the bracket is announced on Sunday evening. The Gophers got a goal from Jaxon Nelson in the opening minute, and two from Matthew Knies on a power play in the final minute, but saw their nine-game winning streak snapped.
"It's been a long time since we lost a game," said Gophers coach Bob Motzko, looking ahead to the NCAA tournament. "It's going to make us better. We needed a game like that to get the cobwebs off after sitting around for a while."
With the loss Minnesota (24-12-0) will likely fall to a number two seed when the full NCAA field and their first round opponent will be revealed at 5:30 p.m. Sunday on ESPN. The Gophers, who won the Big Ten’s regular season title, got 27 saves from goalie Justen Close, but came up short for the first time since late January.
The notion that we would see a lock-it-down defensive slog typical of many playoff games was spoiled in the opening 77 seconds, when each team scored on its first shot, to elate then quiet the raucous sellout audience.
It started on the opening shift when the Wolverines left the middle of the ice open, allowing Jackson LaCombe to connect with Nelson on a long pass and the latter stuffed a puck past Portillo for a very early lead.
"After we had a rush, it just opened up," LaCombe said. "I kinda floated one up. Luckily it hit his stick and he went in for the goal."
Michigan answered at the 1:17 mark and just like that the game was level again.
Michigan took its first lead on a classic “own goal” when Samoskevich fired a puck across the front of the Minnesota goalmouth. Gophers defenseman Mike Koster, looking to deflect the puck away from danger, instead saw the puck deflect off his stick and into the net. Samoskevich was credited with the goal, his 10th of the season.
Michigan got a pair in the second period to open up a commanding lead, and played a stifling defensive game in their own end of the rink all night, severely limiting the Gophers’ ability to make plays around Wolverines goalie Erik Portillo.
"They're dialed in, they're driven. They're champions, they really are," said Wolverines coach Mel Pearson, who was soaked in the post-game press conference following the team's celebration. "Off the ice, on the ice, I give them so much credit."
Portillo finished with 25 saves and was named the playoffs most valuable player as Michigan improved to 29-9-1.
"They have great D and they can all skate and move," Gophers co-captain Sammy Walker said. "I think we could've done a better job of getting pucks to the goal line and kind of working them down low. But they've got a good team."
With Close on the bench and Wolverines in the penalty box late, Knies finally re-engaged the crowd, scoring with just under a minute left and again with 5.8 seconds on the clock, but by then it was too late.
Unlike previous years’ Big Ten playoff games which have had sparse audiences, this was one of the most sought after Gophers home tickets in the past decade. Five sections of students filled one end of the rink more than 30 minutes before the opening faceoff, and a record crowd of 10,774 was announced – the largest in 3M Arena at Mariucci history.
"That was the only disappointing thing is that they were ready to go tonight," Motzko said of the sellout crowd. "We teased them with the first (goal) and we just never got the second one."
Michigan 4, Minnesota 3
First period — 1. MN, Jaxon Nelson 2 (Jackson LaCombe, Grant Cruikshank), 0:32. 2. MI, Brendan Brisson 19 (Matty Beniers, Luke Hughes), 1:17. 3. MI, Mackie Samoskevich 10 (Johnny Beecher), 17:51. Penalties — Matthew Knies, MN (direct contact to the head), 18:21.
Second period — 4. MI, Dylan Duke 9 (Samoskevich, Thomas Bordeleau), 2:07. 5. MI, Kent Johnson 8 (Brisson, Bordeleau), 7:24, (pp). Penalties — Tristan Broz, MN (boarding), 6:26; Mark Estapa, MI (high sticking), 8:46.
Third period — 6. MN, Knies 11 (LaCombe, Blake McLaughlin), 19:03. 7. MN, Knies 12 (Ben Meyers), 19:55. Penalties — Aaron Huglen, MN (goalie interference), 6:33; Nelson, MN (5-checking from behind, game misconduct), 7:00; Nolan Moyle, MI (hooking), 17:26; Jacob Truscott, MI (holding), 18:16.
Shots on goal — MN 10-6-12—28; MI 10-13-8—31. Goalies — Justen Close, MN (31 shots-27 saves); Erik Portillo, MI (28-25). Power plays — MN 2-of-3, MI 1-of-4. Referees — Colin Kronforst, Brett Sheva. Linesmen — Nicholas Bradshaw, Sam Shikowsky. Att. — 10,774.