MINNEAPOLIS — Speaking to the media before Saturday’s Big Ten Championship game against No. 2 Minnesota, sophomore forward Thomas Bordeleau made the No. 4 Michigan hockey team’s mission clear:
“We sat in the bleachers and just looked at the banners and and saw that there’s a spot there for us,” Bordeleau said on Tuesday. “So really, it would mean everything for us to bring (a championship banner) back.”
Facing a hostile crowd on the road, the path there wasn’t easy. But after a minor blemish in the first minute of the game, the Wolverines secured that coveted banner, winning its first Big Ten Championship since 2016 with a 4-3 win over the Golden Gophers.
In a game filled with mistakes, Michigan started on its worst foot: A goal 32 seconds in gave Minnesota an early lead. But poor backchecking by the Gophers left sophomore forward Brendan Brisson wide open for the tying goal just 45 seconds later. With energy let out of 3M Arena, the Gophers’ mistake quickly let the Wolverines off the hook.
Michigan gave them plenty of opportunities to score that goal as defensemen cheated up offensively and forwards settled for individual rushes. But the Wolverines, with a championship on the line, found a way to stay ahead. Even in the second period when sophomore goaltender Erik Portillo threw the puck out in front of his own empty net, they denied the Gophers another goal.
“We talked about getting through the first five minutes trying to take the crowd out of it and then play,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “But this team’s been resilient all year, found a way to come back.”
Having that defensive tenacity mattered, as Minnesota scored two 6-on-3 goals in the final minute to make a blowout a bit more interesting. But it didn’t matter, because earlier gaffes put a win firmly out of the Gophers’ reach.
Late in the first period, a pass from freshman forward Mackie Samoskevich deflected off defenseman Mike Koster’s skate and into the Gophers’ net. Then at the start of the second period, a poor pinch by Minnesota allowed Samoskevich and freshman forward Dylan Duke to team up for a third goal.
“That’s how dangerous they are, I mean that was the game plan,” Minnesota coach Bob Motzko said. “You just can’t give them free ones, and we gave them a couple free ones.”
Turnover after turnover by the Gophers generated those freebies, keeping Michigan in the driver’s seat. Especially as the game wound down in the third period, the Wolverines won the majority of races and battles for the puck, and they capitalized every time the Gophers took their foot off the gas.
Frustrated with its performance, Minnesota injected even more physicality into its play. Taking Michigan hard to the boards every shift, they tried desperately to claw back in the game.
But twice, the Gophers took penalties for illegal hits, and they took another after Michigan struck once on the ensuing power plays to put the game out of reach and the once boiling crowd cooled down to a simmer — until they littered the ice with pop cups and cans in the third period in protest of uncalled penalties.
But those antics didn’t matter, and Michigan breezed through the third period just as easily as before. Minnesota tried to take a pound of flesh with punishing hits and two last-minute goals, but it was too late — Michigan’s championship had already set sail.
And now, when the Wolverines return to Yost next year, one of their open banner slots will be filled. And with how well they handled the Gophers for 59 minutes — and an NCAA Tournament regional on the horizon — it might not be the only one.