MINNEAPOLIS — It was only fitting that it came down to a turnover.
In a series that had seen Michigan twice capitalize on Minnesota turnovers for easy goals, the Golden Gophers made use of a takeaway of their own to beat the Wolverines, 3-2, in overtime Friday.
With the teams knotted at two goals each in the extra period, Michigan sophomore forward Dexter Dancs couldn’t handle a pass from freshman defender Joe Cecconi and turned the puck over just outside his own blue line. Minnesota picked it up and gained the zone, with Connor Reilly feeding Hudson Fasching for a vicious slap shot that went straight past Michigan goaltender Steve Racine for the win.
It was a close game the whole way, fitting for a game that could play a defining role in deciding the Big Ten regular-season champion. With their win Friday, the Golden Gophers nudged ahead of Michigan by a point in the Big Ten standings with four games left to play.
“Both teams had chances,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “It was just a matter of who’s going to score.”
That team turned out to be Minnesota, which salvaged a split in the two-game series after losing 6-2 on Friday.
Early in the game, though, it looked like the bounces might fall the Wolverines’ way. Michigan started the scoring in Friday’s game the same way it did on Thursday — by scoring off a Minnesota turnover.
Senior forward Justin Selman picked up the puck in the Golden Gophers’ zone, then fed freshman forward Cooper Marody, who made a pretty move past goaltender Eric Schierhorn for the goal.
Minnesota answered less than four minutes later with a goal from the point, and by the time the second period rolled around, it was the Golden Gophers’ turn to catch a break.
With 12:43 left in the second, Minnesota forward Leon Bristedt appeared to be dumping the puck deep into the Michigan zone. But rather than going into the corner, Bristedt’s shot skipped past Racine and into the net, giving the Golden Gophers a 2-1 edge.
“That happens,” Berenson said. “I watch NHL hockey every night. It happens in the NHL, so, it can happen to him too.”
The Wolverines kept a strong resolve after the goal, though, generating nine shots on goal and having 10 more blocked in the second period alone.
For the most part, Schierhorn held strong through the frame, but with just under three minutes remaining in the second, Michigan broke through again. With a Golden Gopher defender sliding through the slot, freshman forward Kyle Connor connected with junior forward Tyler Motte on a perfect saucer pass, and Motte roofed it past Schierhorn for an impressive equalizer.
“I just tried to give (Connor) enough room to get a good pass,” Motte said. “He got it right in the wheelhouse and I just happened to get it up over the goalie.”
Racine, for his part, was solid in the net once again. He made 24 of 27 saves for the Wolverines, with the only bad goal allowed being Bristedt’s dump shot.
And even after the blunder in the second, he prevented the Golden Gophers from breaking through in the third period, including stopping one critical breakaway with 15 minutes to play. Bristedt broke loose on a Minnesota penalty kill, streaking to the net while being chased by Michigan junior forward Alex Kile. But Racine held his ground, denying Bristedt and keeping the game tied with a butterfly save as Bristedt crossed the front of the net.
With five and a half minutes to play, Racine kept the Wolverines alive once again when he knocked away a point-blank wrister from Minnesota’s Tyler Sheehy. Sheehy had Racine caught in the splits when a centering pass came from behind the net, but the senior goaltender’s left glove hand was enough to keep the puck out of the net and the game level.
Schierhorn, similarly, kept the Golden Gophers afloat many times. With three minutes left, and Selman streaking down the center of the slot, Minnesota’s freshman netminder stoned Selman on a slap shot that could have swung all the momentum to Michigan and possibly won the game for the Wolverines.
But with one hard shot in overtime, Fasching ensured it was his team riding the momentum into the final stretch of Big Ten play.
“Seemed like a playoff game on the ice,” Berenson said. “They were a lot more focused, a lot more desperate tonight than they were last night, their team, and we tried to get our team to match that. At times we did; at times we didn’t.”