MINNEAPOLIS — For the better part of two and a half periods, the Michigan hockey team was locked in a tight contest befitting of a series that could decide the Big Ten’s regular-season champion.
But with a furious scoring run late in the third period, the Wolverines cruised to a 6-2 win over Minnesota at Mariucci Arena on Thursday, vaulting into first place in the conference standings. Junior forward Alex Kile notched a hat trick with one goal in each period, and freshman forward Kyle Connor added two goals of his own in the win.
For a 6-2 game, though, Thursday’s contest was hardly electric for the first two periods.
Michigan struck first when Kile capitalized on a turnover from Minnesota defenseman Ryan Collins directly in front of the Golden Gophers’ net. Collins lost control of the puck while surveying the ice in front of him, and Kile made him pay, burning Minnesota goalie Eric Schierhorn on a bang-bang play.
“That’s a tough play,” Kile said. “Sometimes the ice gets chippy, and the puck just kind of rolled off his stick. Kind of feel bad for (Collins), but the puck was right in the slot and I just faked backhand, went forehand, and it actually hit off his stick into the net.”
It was a big break for the Wolverines, who finished the period with a 9-6 edge in shots on goal but were able to cash in only once.
The second period was a different story. Minnesota came out firing, outshooting Michigan, 8-1, in the first eight minutes of the second despite missing on a pair of nifty chances directly in front of senior goalie Steve Racine.
“We knew they were going to come out hard,” Racine said. “I think the first might have been one of our better periods all year, and they hadn’t played in a little while, so I think they were just getting their legs under them.
“We did a good job weathering the storm.”
Racine kept Michigan steady all game, stopping 31 of 33 shots and preserving a slim lead while the Wolverines’ offense tried to get going.
Minnesota’s Justin Kloos and Darian Romanko both had chances to tie the game early in the second, but Racine stoned Romanko with a big left-pad save, and Kloos couldn’t thread the needle while streaking to the net from the right boards.
The Wolverines weathered the Golden Gophers’ storm until their offense capitalized on its first big chance of the period. With Michigan on a power play 12:22 into the period, Kile tapped home his second of the day off a rebound from junior forward Tyler Motte — whose goal streak ended Thursday at 12 games. Schierhorn poked the puck away from Motte as he neared the goal, but it went straight to the waiting stick of Kile, who roofed it to give Michigan a two-goal lead.
“He’s one of our gifted scorers,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “The thing I like about him is he scored those blue-paint goals. Like where did all those goals come from? Right near the crease, right in tight, rebound, second-effort goals. That’s where you’re sticking your nose into the danger areas and you’re paying the price to score goals.”
Going into the break, Michigan still held that lead, but the final outcome was hardly decided.
That changed sharply halfway through the third period. With 9:49 left, a fight broke out deep in the Minnesota end. Michigan’s Brendan Warren and Justin Selman were sent off for roughing after the whistle, and Minnesota’s Nick Seeler and Jack Glover were awarded matching penalties. But Glover was also given a penalty for cross-checking, giving the Wolverines a man advantage.
Michigan made the most of the power play, going up 3-0 when junior forward JT Compher found Connor all alone on the right side of the crease for an easy goal with 8:06 to play.
Kile added his third tally of the game with just over five minutes remaining, tapping in a rebound for his 14th of the season, and junior forward Max Shuart scored another with just under four minutes left. Then, with 2:58 to play, Connor got loose on a breakaway, beating Schierhorn to go up 6-0.
Moments later, Minnesota defenseman Steve Johnson scored the Golden Gophers first goal of the game, ending Racine’s bid for a shutout. Michigan’s defense collapsed with the huge lead, and Tommy Novak scored for Minnesota again with 1:32 left to spoil an otherwise strong outing from Racine.
The Wolverines were more than happy to emerge with the conference lead, regardless of the lost shutout.
“This wasn’t a 6-2 game,” Berenson said. “Certainly, it could have been a different game had Steve Racine had not made some key saves at key times in the game. … I just thought the score didn’t indicate the game. They’re a better team than that, and we were lucky at times, and our goalie had to make a difference.”