For the No. 4 Michigan hockey team, this weekend’s Big Ten Championship game might feel like deja vu.
Because 364 days before the Wolverines take the ice at 3M Arena at Mariucci against No. 1 Minnesota this Saturday, Michigan entered the same rink last year playing for the same trophy. There, the Wolverines left Minneapolis with a 4-3 win and the program’s first Big Ten Championship since 2016.
With that experience this year, in its quest to defend that title, Michigan knows what to expect.
“We have a good amount of guys that played that game last year, so we know what the building is going to be like,” sophomore forward Dylan Duke said Tuesday. “We know the fans are going to be rowdy. It’s going to be sold out.”
Duke is correct — 3M Arena is already sold out for Saturday. With a raucous crowd of 10,000+ booing the Wolverines’ every move, their first task will be to quiet that crowd, making a hostile environment feel comfortable. And while they want to repeat last year’s result, they won’t want to face the same opening-minute deficit.
“Last year, they got that first goal on the first shift and now we all remember that feeling of how loud it was in that building,” Duke said. “We know that we need to have a better start this year. And we’re gonna be focused on having a great start.”
When it took on the Golden Gophers on Jan. 21, Michigan experienced first-hand what a good start can do. Sophomore defenseman Ethan Edwards scored a go-ahead goal just 1:36 into the contest, and freshman forward Adam Fantilli added another six minutes later. The Wolverines quickly rendered Mariucci silent, destined to ride that start to victory.
But Minnesota is the top-ranked team in the nation for a reason, and it didn’t stay down for long. The Gophers clawed their way back in, forcing overtime for the second night in a row. And while Michigan escaped with a win thanks to junior defenseman Jacob Truscott, the back-to-back extra frames only proved how tight the gap between two of the top teams in the country is.
Going back to Minneapolis again, the Wolverines know just how razor-thin their margin for error is. Losing three of four clashes between the two squads this season, Michigan often found itself on the wrong side of the fight. And under the bright lights and fanfare of the Big Ten championship game, that margin only gets thinner.
But between last season’s triumph and this year’s back-and-forth affairs, it’s a margin that the Wolverines have seen before. So they know that staying on the right side of it doesn’t necessarily take anything out of the ordinary. It takes Michigan’s best, playing a game of good, clean, hockey — something they’ve struggled with at times, leading the nation in penalty minutes.
“It’s just like winning any hockey game — it’s all about the little plays, getting the puck in or getting it out at the blue line,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said Monday. “I can give you a bunch of cliché lines, but it’s just the right play at the right time. You don’t know which one that’s going to be.”
Maybe that play will be something flashy like Truscott’s overtime goal, or now-AHLer Brendan Brisson’s second-minute equalizer last season that prevented the Wolverines’ early hole from growing any deeper. But no matter how many of those big plays Michigan comes up with, it’s more likely than not that Minnesota’s stars will fire back with one of their own.
After all, for every top NHL prospect that Michigan has, for every star player, the Gophers have one of their own and then some. Forward Matthew Knies just earned the Big Ten Player of the Year award, defenseman Brock Faber added the Defensive Player of the Year award to his collection and Minnesota took home a whole host of conference awards.
“They’re the best team in the country, and they’ve earned that right to this point,” Naurato said. “We feel really good about our team that we can beat teams like that.”
And while upsetting the top-ranked team in the nation on the road and coming home from Minneapolis with the trophy remains a tall task, the Wolverines have proven they’re up to the challenge. They won the same game with the same stakes one year prior, and they’ve already gone into Mariucci and won this season. It’ll require near-perfection, but Michigan knows it can pull off the upset on Saturday.
Because it’s done just that before.