ST. PAUL, Minn. — With the clock winding down in the third period, the Michigan hockey team and Minnesota were deadlocked at three in the Big Ten championship game at the Xcel Energy Center.
But with just 5:18 left in the game, the Wolverines were given a gift when Golden Gopher defenseman Jack Glover was sent to the penalty box for holding.
And Michigan’s power play unit did exactly what it has done well in the last month of the season.
The Wolverines cycled the puck around before junior forward JT Compher fed sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski at the point.
Werenski one-timed Compher's pass at the Gopher goal. The shot went untouched as it headed toward the net and beat Minnesota goaltender Eric Schierhorn’s glove for Werenski’s tenth goal of the year, putting Michigan on the cusp of raising its first Big Ten banner back at Yost Ice Arena.
“I just saw people in front of the net so I just tried to see the puck on net,” Werenski said. “JT made a great pass to me and luckily it found its way in, and I know the special feeling, we worked hard for that, so that last goal was pretty special.”
The Wolverines would go on to shut out Minnesota for the rest of the game, winning their first-ever Big Ten Tournament, with their power play playing a huge role in the victory.
Earlier, Compher and fellow junior forward Tyler Motte scored man-advantage goals to put Michigan up 2-0 early in the second period.
“(Michigan is) too talented to probably keep them to zero (goals),” said Minnesota coach Don Lucia. “We were hoping maybe we could hold them to one tonight, maybe one-for-two and one-for-three. but we took a couple penalties that we probably didn't need to take. You're just playing with fire when you give them that many opportunities.”
If the game was judged by even-strength goals, Minnesota had the advantage, and at times, looked like the superior team, but the Wolverines’ power play was too much for the Gophers.
“You think you're kind of controlling the game, you're not giving them a sniff,” said Minnesota forward Justin Kloos. “Then all of a sudden, Connor's got two assists, Compher's got a goal and Motte's got a goal.
“I thought five-on-five, we beat them what, two to one tonight? So five-on-five I thought we had the better of them, but obviously they have an elite power play that is clicking on all cylinders right now.
Over the past two months, Michigan has quietly had a very successful power play, ranking No. 1 unit in the NCAA at 31.76 percent, just under three percent better than second place St. Cloud State. In just the last month alone, the Wolverines’ unit has gone 23–for-41 (56 percent).
“When you have that many guys that can shoot, guys that can have that much hockey sense, that they're not going to panic with the puck, they know where it's going to go next,” Lucia said. “That's why I think they're like 50 percent over the last month or so.”
While Michigan has two different units on the power play, one in particular stepped up Saturday night.
And it was no surprise which players played on that particular unit: Connor, Compher and Motte.
“It's one of the best power plays I've had since I've been at Michigan,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “Brian Wiseman coaches the power play, and he’s doing a great job figuring out who can do what best and so on. But that line, that's a big part of our power play.”
Added Connor: “We kind of had the same group and now (it’s) just a matter of time (where it’s) kind of second nature. We know the plays that we have and the options, and I think it's really starting to open up for us.”
With the NCAA Tournament now just a week away, Michigan is peaking at just the right time. After a wakeup call against Ohio State, where the Wolverines were swept, Michigan has responded with four wins over the No. 1 and No. 3 teams in the Big Ten.
And a big part of that success has been their No. 1 ranked power play.