MINNEAPOLIS — Rutger McGroarty saw it first. A rebound in front of Minnesota goaltender Justen Close. A loose puck drill, like any he’d seen since he learned to skate in Lincoln, Neb., or during what feels like a million practices inside Yost Ice Arena.
As McGroarty plunged forward, he roofed the puck top shelf to tie the No. 4 Michigan hockey team at one with No. 1 Minnesota. But the goal didn’t matter. It was about the outcome and the belief it spawned. Confidence for his team, for his linemates.
Confidence in himself.
When he skated to the boards after the goal, McGroarty screamed. Loud. Right into the face of whatever poor soul happened to luck into front row seats to the Rutger McGroarty Show. As his teammates tried to pull him off to celebrate, he wouldn’t stop staring down the Gophers faithful, sending a clear message:
You like that.
Thirty-four seconds later, McGroarty scored again to give Michigan its first lead in what turned into a 4-3 Big Ten Championship win. It seemed monumental. Unexpected even. That is, until reporters asked linemate and fellow freshman forward Adam Fantilli if the plan was to feed the hot hand all night.
“Always,” Fantilli said. “Always. As soon as one guy gets one you just try and keep him going.”
McGroarty, sitting next to him in a backward Big Ten Champions hat with its tag still dangling, leaned into the mic with his own thoughts:
“I’ve been doing that for the whole second half,” McGroarty cracked, his smile beaming under bright camera lights. For the majority of the second half, he’s been the one feeding Fantilli and his torrid scoring pace.
Of course, it helps that McGroarty has played alongside the nation’s leading scorer in Fantilli since January. It also helps having consistent linemate freshman forward Gavin Brindley on his other wing. Two first-round picks in the making, those guys can even make fourth-liners look special. McGroarty was quick to credit them.
He was also quick to credit something else.
“More confidence and just playing a full semester, like a whole first half,” McGroarty said. “I mean, you get used to the speed, you get used to the pace.”
He needed to. Effective lines don’t have passengers — not in March. So accordingly, McGroarty snapped his second seven-game goalless streak of the season to start the Big Ten Tournament. In the process, he sparked a four-game goal spree which he built upon Saturday night.
Any lack of confidence that ailed him to start the season seemed a distant memory when he scored against the Gophers after they ran the ice sheet for the better part of the first period. And it certainly wasn’t there when his second tally put the underdog Wolverines up 2-1.
“I don’t think those guys were happy, as a line, with how they played in the first, which is fine, like that’s hockey,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said. “You’re not going to be playing the best all the time.”
But confidence is fickle. You can’t capture it and stow it in a jar. You can’t save it for later, for the big moments like raucous championship games with history on the line. That comes from the quiet times, like video studies with Naurato or the deep personal reflection it takes to deliver in the clutch.
And that’s why McGroarty scored. It’s why he outmaneuvered Gophers’ captain and Olympian Brock Faber for his second goal, the bellcow of Minnesota’s defense and the poster child of Minnesota hockey. Right by the left goalpost, in an area only he could get to.
That’s why the Wolverines won.
As McGroarty and his teammates celebrated after the game, Mariucci had gone still except the energetic chatter of family members standing on the concourse. Walking down the arena steps two at a time, back to the ice one last time, McGroarty took a moment for himself.
Channeling his inner Kirk Cousins, he yelled out to tell the empty seats one last time — you like that. To no one in particular. Only for himself
Because tonight, Rutger McGroarty was confident, and that’s enough to make anyone scream.
This story was updated March 19, 2023, to include more context of Rutger McGroarty’s postgame interview.