If the Big Ten ever returns its hockey tournament to a single-site format, as it was for the beginning of the conference, Michigan hockey might have a suggestion: 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis.
For the second consecutive season, the second-seeded Wolverines went into the den of top-seeded Minnesota and came away with a 4-3 victory to claim the Big Ten title and the conference’s automatic berth in the NCAA tournament. Last season, the Wolverines dominated for 58 minutes. Saturday’s matchup was much tighter, with the teams trading the lead several times, but the Wolverines prevailed again.
Sophomore Dylan Duke scored off his backhand with 8:14 remaining in the third period to give Michigan its second straight Big Ten tournament title and virtually assure the Wolverines (24-11-3) of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The 16-team field will be announced Sunday night on ESPNU. Minnesota is also expected to be a No. 1 seed, with Quinnipiac, which lost to Michigan in the regional final last season, and Denver, which beat Michigan in the Frozen Four, also potential top seeds.
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Evenly matched through two periods
Minnesota opened the scoring with a snipe from Brody Lamb past Michigan goalie Erik Portillo on the left side. Star freshman Logan Cooley, the No. 3 overall pick in the NHL draft last summer and one of two Hobey Baker Award finalists playing at Mariucci on Saturday night, hauled in a loose puck at center ice and drove into the offensive zone on the right side, blowing by a pair of Michigan defensemen. After drawing their attention, he slid the puck to Lamb, who held it for half a second before firing a wrist shot for the score.
Michigan had to wait until the second period to even the match. Just over three minutes in, freshman Gavin Brindley carried the puck behind the net, then fired to a waiting Ethan Erickson in the left circle. Erickson fired a one-timer, but Minnesota goalie Justen Close was on it, stopping the shot but allowing a rebound out in front. Freshman Rutger McGroarty swooped in and banged the puck past Close on Michigan’s eighth shot.
Shot No. 9 gave the Wolverines command of the game. About 30 seconds after McGroarty’s goal, Michigan again had the puck in Minnesota’s zone after a faceoff win by Adam Fantilli, the other Hobey Baker finalist playing Saturday. The freshman dropped the puck off to defenseman Keaton Pehrson, who fired a shot that went wide on the right side, hit the boards and bounced to the left side of the net where McGroarty was waiting. The Winnipeg Jets 2022 first-round pick then swept the puck into the net before Close could even get to the opposite of the net, for a 2-1 lead with 16:14 remaining in the second.
But Michigan’s lead lasted just five minutes as Jimmy Snuggerud picked up a loose puck and drove into Michigan’s zone with Cooley on his left side for a two-on-none. As Snuggerud slid the puck to Cooley, his U.S. teammate at the World Juniors last winter, Portillo dove to break up the pass. He missed it, but Cooley didn’t, sliding it in for a 2-2 game with 10:49 remaining in the period.
The Golden Gophers almost made it 3-2 just 24 seconds later. Matthew Knies, driving to the net, was tripped and slammed into Portillo in the crease. Portillo slid backward, unmooring the net just as a Gopher picked up the rebound and fired it in. As Minnesota celebrated, the referees waved off the score and announced a tripping penalty on Michigan star defenseman Luke Hughes. Michigan was then able to kill off the penalty to head into the third with a tie.
Three for all
Rhett Pitlick deked his way through a pair of Michigan defenders, then sniped the puck past Michigan goalie Erik Portillo 1:57 into the third period to give the Golden Gophers a 3-2 lead. But the Wolverines weren’t done; about three minutes later, freshman defenseman Seamus Casey tied it with a blast from near the blue line that worked its way through a crowd and just missed the stick of McGroarty. Minnesota challenged the goal on a missed offsides call, but officials ruled it a good goal.
Michigan and the rest of the Big Ten’s NCAA contenders — near-certain at-large picks Minnesota, Ohio State and Penn State — will find out their paths to the Frozen Four (slated for Tampa, Florida, on April 6-8) at 6:30 p.m. Sunday when the field is revealed on ESPNU.
The state of Michigan has two additional likely NCAA squads, with Michigan Tech (24-0-4) and Western Michigan (23-14-1) putting themselves in place for at-large berths. The Huskies are led by senior goalie Blake Pietila, another of the 10 Hobey Baker finalists, while the Broncos feature senior forward Jason Polin, who leads the nation in goals (29) in also making the finalist cut for the Hobey Baker.
This year’s four-team regionals are in Fargo, North Dakota; Manchester, New Hampshire; Allentown, Pennsylvania; and Bridgeport, Connecticut. The Golden Gophers and the Denver Pioneers (the defending national champions) are both 1-seed contenders with appeal for the Fargo regional, while Quinnipiac is the likely No. 1 in Bridgeport. That leaves Manchester or Allentown for the Wolverines. Michigan was the 1-seed in Allentown last season and beat AIC and Quinnipiac to advance to the program’s 26th Frozen Four — the most in NCAA history.
Disappointment in Mankato
Meanwhile, in Mankato, Minnesota, Northern Michigan just fell short of a stunning run to the CCHA title; the Wildcats, who had won six straight to improbably make the final, narrowly missed out on their first NCAA tournament berth since 2010. The Wildcats took a 2-0 lead into the final two minutes, thanks to a pair of goals from Alex Frye. But the Mavericks scored twice in 82 seconds to knot it at 2-2. Finally, Zach Krajnik scored 1:08 into the extra period to return the Mavericks, who finished as the national runners-up in 2022, back to the NCAA tournament.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan hockey upsets Minnesota, 4-3, for 2nd straight Big Ten title