MINNEAPOLIS — Before the series started, Michigan coach Mel Pearson knew that stopping Minnesota on the power play would be key.
The Golden Gophers (10-12-4 overall, 7-7-3-0 Big Ten) are converting at a nearly one-in-three clip on the man advantage in Big Ten play and rank eighth in the nation on the year with a 24-percent conversion rate.
Early in Friday’s game, despite Pearson’s caution, junior forward Adam Winborg was whistled for interference and Minnesota received a man advantage. Just over a minute later, forward Rem Pitlick opened the scoring on a shot that beat junior goaltender Hayden Lavigne on his low glove side.
It looked like it might be a long night for the Wolverines (10-10-6, 6-6-4-2) if the Golden Gophers kept up the pace on the power play.
But three minutes later, junior forward Will Lockwood found twine on his third shot in under 10 seconds, sliding the puck past goaltender Mat Robson.
“It’s not the start we wanted,” Pearson said. “We take a penalty early, we give them a power play that’s been really hot. An opportunity right off the get go, but I thought that next goal was going to be important. We got a big goal from (Lockwood) and that sort of set the tone for our team.”
And from there, Michigan took the lead and held on to win, 4-2.
On the Wolverines’ second penalty kill of the game, they allowed Minnesota only one shot. After a hot start from the Golden Gophers, the first period came to a close with Michigan leading in shots, 13-12.
The Wolverines opened the second period on the power play, though they failed to convert on the man advantage. But Michigan fired a barrage of shots at Robson during the power play, setting the tone for the period to come.
The Golden Gophers didn’t so much as record a shot on net until there were just over five minutes left in the period — and Michigan had already tacked on two more goals.
“I just thought we played our systems really well,” Pearson said. “We did what we needed to do. We controlled the puck and when you have the puck, the other team’s not going to get opportunities. But we played our game. We’re gonna look at that second period and try and take some of those things and put them into our game the full sixty tomorrow.”
Just under halfway through the second frame, freshman forward Garrett Van Wyhe received the puck right in front of Robson from sophomore forward Dakota Raabe and sent the puck through Robson’s five-hole to give the Wolverines a 2-1 lead.
Michigan had a chance to extend the lead when it got a two-man advantage midway through the period, but the Wolverines’ season-long power play woes continued. They finished the game 0-for-5 on the power play.
It didn’t matter, though, because just after Minnesota recorded a successful penalty kill, sophomore forward Michael Pastujov carried the puck from blueline to blueline and fired a shot between a defender’s legs, somehow finding the back of the net.
Minnesota put more pressure on Lavigne throughout the third period than it had in the second, but he remained composed and kept the Golden Gophers off the score sheet for the first half of the period.
“(Lavigne) made a couple look easy,” Pearson said. “When they’re coming right down the slot and just winding up, and he made it look real easy. He was on his game, he was focused, composed, and he stood tall for us tonight. And you need that on the road, you need goaltending on the road against good teams to win, and we got that tonight.”
With 8:02 remaining in the game, freshman forward Nolan Moyle was sent to the penalty box for cross-checking. After holding Minnesota to only one goal on the five previous power plays, the Golden Gophers wouldn’t be held without another goal on the man advantage.
The puck bounced through the crease in front of Lavigne after he made a save and forward Brannon McManus tucked the puck into the open side of the net. Suddenly, a game Michigan had dominated was a close one-goal game.
Minnesota came within centimeters of tying the game as a shot from forward Jack Ramsey went off the crossbar above Lavigne, but the Golden Gophers were called for a penalty seconds later that eliminated what felt like an imminent scoring threat.
As the Golden Gophers’ penalty expired, senior forward Nicholas Boka wrapped the puck around the net and sent it behind Robson, stretching the Michigan lead back to two goals.
“(Minnesota) lost last weekend, 4-3, and all three of their goals were on the power play,” Pearson said. “You don’t have to be a hockey expert or genius to figure out what the strength of their game is right now. We did a good job, we killed the penalty late in the period when we needed to, and that’s the key.”
After the Wolverines neutralized the final power play for the Golden Gophers, Minnesota coach Bob Motzko elected to pull Robson for a six-on-five advantage over the final 1:36, trailing by two goals.
And as the last 96 seconds ticked off the clock, Michigan eliminated the man advantage one last time.