ST. PAUL, Minn. — Three hundred sixty one days ago, the Michigan hockey team found itself in a situation eerily similar to that of Saturday night — taking the ice for the Big Ten Championship against Minnesota.
At the time, as the Wolverines entered the championship game at Joe Louis Arena, they were on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, in dire need of an upset against the Golden Gophers to keep their season alive. But when the final horn sounded, Michigan was left with a scoreboard reading 4-2 in Minnesota’s favor to cement its campaign.
In the 361 days that followed, though, that dynamic had changed drastically.
This time, the Wolverines had the cards in their hands entering the championship game — having already solidified a NCAA Tournament berth with only retribution to truly play for. And now, Minnesota was the team in need of a season-preserving victory.
And Michigan was able to change the most important part of the former narrative, capturing the Big Ten Championship with a 5-3 victory against the Golden Gophers at Xcel Energy Center.
“Up until tonight there’s been five banners hung and we have four of them,” said Minnesota coach Don Lucia. “We were trying to get a fifth, and Michigan didn’t have one — and that’s a proud program. … That can sometimes be the driving force.”
After three unanswered Minnesota goals left Michigan in a 3-2 hole entering the third period, freshman forward Kyle Connor and sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski rose to the occasion during crunch time.
A few short minutes into the final frame, the freshman brought the Wolverines back to life with an equalizer.
Connor received a cross-ice pass from junior forward JT Compher, and was alone against Schierhorn. He hesitated and baited Schierhorn to come out of the net before faking one shot and deking right to leave both the Gophers’ goaltender on his back and the puck in the net.
Twelve minutes later, with Michigan on the power play, Werenski gave his team the Big Ten Championship. The Wolverines rotated the puck around the offensive zone, tallying a number of shots, before it ended up at the point on Werenski’s stick.
The blueliner let one loose, and the goal horn lit up. Michigan 4, Minnesota 3.
“In between the second and third, (last year is) something we talked about, is ‘We owe them,’ ” Werenski said. “They ended our season last year, so we came out with some fire.”
Michigan closed out the game with a stout defensive effort, led by senior goaltender Steve Racine — who slammed the door shut against Minnesota’s last-ditch efforts — before notching an open-net goal to seal the victory.
Neither side could break the stalemate during the opening 10 minutes of the rematch, partly because No. 20 Minnesota (14-7 Big Ten, 20-17 overall) opened the game with a conservative approach — sending its defensemen back to the red line every time Michigan started a breakout.
Eventually, though, the seventh-ranked Wolverines (13-5-3-2 Big Ten, 24-7-5 overall) found a breakthrough on the first power play of the game.
Just over 10 minutes into the frame, Werenski was quarterbacking the power play from the point. He sent a pass to Connor in the right circle, who patiently cradled the puck with a Minnesota defenseman in front of him, searching for a chink in the defense’s armor.
Then he found it.
Connor served junior forward Tyler Motte in front, leaving him with only Minnesota goaltender Eric Schierhorn to beat. Motte was up to the task, as he lifted the puck in the air to beat Schierhorn glove side.
The finish gave Michigan a 1-0 lead, marked Motte’s 30th goal of the season and continued Connor’s 25-game point streak.
Not long into the second period, the Wolverines put themselves on the board again with another power-play finish. After 91 seconds ticked off the clock, a scrum in front left a loose puck up for grabs. Compher got to it first before deflecting a shot from just behind the net off Schierhorn’s pads and across the goal line.
It appeared that the Wolverines were on their way to a storybook ending. But the first few chapters were torn out quickly as they had been written.
In the span of four minutes, Minnesota responded with two goals of its own to even the score. The first came 6:35 into the second period, off the stick of forward Leon Bristedt. After Minnesota forward Vinni Lettieri streaked down the left side of the ice, he backhanded the puck to the slot where Bristedt one-timed the chance for an easy goal. Then, just under four minutes later, Minnesota defenseman Jake Bischoff added another — calmly finishing a wraparound after senior goaltender Steve Racine was knocked off balance and failed to recover in time.
The Golden Gophers’ equalizer sucked the life out of the Wolverines, instantly turning them on the defensive. Michigan managed to weather that storm for a little over six minutes, but eventually conceded a power play that proved to be the breaking point.
“We started playing slower,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “I thought we started playing cuter. We weren’t as physical. … We were on the wrong side of the puck, and sure enough they got back in the game.”
After freshman forward Cooper Marody went to the box for slashing, it took Minnesota forward Justin Kloos 91 seconds before he fired a shot past Racine’s stick side, giving the Golden Gophers a one-goal advantage.
Though Motte finished a chance in the last minute of the frame, it was whistled off for offsides and Minnesota maintained its lead heading into the final period.
But behind Connor and Werenski’s goals, in addition to Motte’s open-net finish in the closing minute, none of that mattered. Michigan changed the most important part of the former narrative. It has a banner to hang at Yost Ice Arena.
And more than anything, it exorcised its demons that have been following them all season.