MINNEAPOLIS — Jack Becker banged his hands against the glass.
On the other side of it sat a group of Minnesota fans. The junior forward — a Minnesota native — was taunting the crowd. Moments earlier, he’d given the Wolverines a 1-0 lead.
Becker’s shot was a quick one-timer from the slot that beat Golden Gopher goaltender Jack LaFontaine over his shoulder.
His goal came just as Saturday’s game was reaching its halfway point. And despite his team surrendering the lead a few minutes later, Michigan (16-14-4 overall, 11-10-3-2 Big Ten) eventually pulled out a 2-1 victory over No. 18 Minnesota (14-13-7, 9-8-7-4). The win gives the Wolverines home ice in a Big Ten Tournament matchup next week against Michigan State.
“Real good game,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “Much better than last night’s game. Last night was just sort of an outlier for us. I made a comment we played maybe our worst game of the year. I don’t want to say tonight was our best game, but we played pretty darn good against a very talented team, one of the best, hottest teams in the Big Ten right now.”
The Gophers showed their talent when, just three-and-a-half minutes after Becker’s go-ahead goal, they answered with one of their own.
Minnesota forward Nathan Burke was angling for position on senior forward Jake Slaker in front of the Wolverines’ net. When the puck made its way to him, Burke flicked his stick and sailed the puck into the netting to beat a sprawled out Strauss Mann.
Headed into the final twenty minutes tied at one, everything was on the line for Michigan. Home ice in the conference tournament was within its grasp, it just needed one more goal. And within the opening moments of the third, the Wolverines found a way to get the separation they needed to earn the win.
Off a pass from teammate Jake Slaker, freshman forward Nick Granowicz tucked the puck in a small window between LaFontaine’s pads to give his team the lead.
“It almost felt like whoever scored that next goal was going to win,” Pearson said. “Good for him. … It’s good to see (that line) get that goal and be the game winner. Nick’s played so well, he was really good tonight.”
For the remaining time, the Wolverines staved off any late attempts from the Gophers to even the game. They’d earned the lead, they’d done what they needed to do to earn home ice and they weren’t about to let off the gas and allow Minnesota any chances. That’s something Michigan failed to do Friday night, when it gave too many opportunities to the Gophers and blew a lead. But Saturday was a different story. With everything on the line, it proved to be a team capable of holding on when it matters most.
Out of 34 regular season games, Saturday night’s mattered the most. It secured home ice for Michigan in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
This is a team that started the second half in last place in the conference standings. A team that had just seven points after its first 10 Big Ten games. A team that couldn’t score to save its life. But none of that matters now.
Michigan finished in third place in the conference. Three spots higher than the coaches’ poll at the beginning picked it to finish. Four places higher than it looked like it would finish headed into the midseason break.
“If you look back at our first half, we did lose a decent amount of games,” Slaker said. “ … We were right there, there was just a few bounces, a lack of execution on our part at times, and the bounces weren’t going our way.
“ … I was on the Frozen Four team my sophomore year, and we kind of had the same start. (We had) a big regroup during Christmas break and came at it like a whole new season. That’s kind of what we did. Our leadership core was a part of that our sophomore year, so we saw the same kind of trend this year, and we took it head on.”
Now, all focus turns to the postseason, and whether the Wolverines have done enough to set themselves up to secure an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.
And whether Michigan’s group of seniors can string together a postseason run like they witnessed in their sophomore year.