Entering the season, hype surrounded the No. 3 Michigan hockey team. With four of the top five 2021 NHL draft selections, preseason polls suggested the Wolverines would not only be the best team in the Big Ten, but also a National Championship frontrunner.
The Big Ten coaches, however, selected No. 11 Minnesota to win the conference.
In the teams’ first meeting of the year, the Golden Gophers (10-7 overall, 6-3 Big Ten) crushed Michigan (12-5, 5-4), 5-1, jumping to first place in the conference while handing the Wolverines their third straight conference loss.
Minnesota dominated the ice throughout the matchup. Even though Michigan outshot the Golden Gophers, 31-30, Minnesota’s shots were dangerous: centered into the slot, fired from close range and met with little defensive resistance. The Wolverines, meanwhile, haplessly fired weak wrist shots from the outside a majority of the night. The attempts were saved easily by reigning collegiate goaltender of the year Jack LaFontaine, who left Michigan following his freshman year.
“We emphasized it a lot, that we needed to get to the tough ice,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “When you look at the score sheet after the first period, I don’t know if we had one opportunity from that area tonight.”
While Michigan struggled to get past the blue line and establish an offensive presence, the Golden Gophers lived in their attacking zone. A barrage of turnovers and errant passes allowed the Minnesota backcheck to dominate while playing relatively conservative, limiting penalties. It thrived, setting up uncontested shots and two-on-one breaks.
The floodgates opened near the midway point of the first period, when a two-on-one break created the first of three Golden Gopher goals in the period.
Defenseman Brock Faber received the puck in stride on the right side of the goal, shifting the puck right to left while approaching the crease with speed. The move was too quick for Portillo, leaving Faber to flip the puck into the open net.
“They beat us up ice,” Pearson said. “The first goal is a great example. … We had a bad pinch in the neutral zone by one of our defenseman which allowed the two-on-one.”
Two minutes later, forward Matthew Knies passed freshman defenseman Luke Hughes with speed and finesse on the left side. He snuck the puck through Hughes’s legs, then lifted his stick over Hughes’s helmet to pass by him and regain possession. The surge toward the goal left forward Chaz Lucius open in the slot and sophomore goaltender Eric Portillo helpless. Lucius buried the goal with ease, and later scored with less than a minute left in the period to give Minnesota a comfortable 3-0 advantage.
The struggles continued for Michigan early in the second period, and an interference call on Golden Gopher defenseman Matt Staudacher five minutes in couldn’t stop the bleeding.
The Wolverines’ third best power play in the nation was completely shut down throughout the contest. Michigan went 0-for-5 when given a man advantage, failing to challenge LaFontaine throughout. The Minnesota penalty kill’s active sticks led to constant deflections and a handful of shorthanded opportunities, while pucks that did make it past the stout defense were easily handled by LaFontaine.
“They were good,” Pearson said of the opposing penalty kill. “They played in lanes. … They’re such good skaters, they can recover quickly.”
A chaotic scene in front of LaFontaine, with the puck rickisheying off the boards behind the net before landing in front of a host of skaters and sneaking just past the goal line seemed to give Michigan life. The Wolverines’ goal gave them hope, cutting the deficit to 3-1, but following a Minnesota challenge, the goal was overturned as officials deemed the entry pass offsides. The ruling deflated them, and the Golden Gophers answered quickly.
Second period goals by Minnesota forward Blake McLaughlin and extra skater Johnny Sorenson ended any hope of a Michigan comeback, and a third period goal by sophomore forward Thomas Bordeleau early in the third period was too little, too late.
“They were ready to play,” Pearson said of Minnesota’s ambush. “They took advantage of opportunities and we were chasing the game.”