MINNEAPOLIS — It’s been three years since the Michigan hockey team recorded a sweep on the road.
It’s been about as long since Minnesota was swept at Mariucci Arena.
And it’s been 41 years since Michigan came away from Minneapolis with a sweep.
All three of those streaks came to an end Saturday night.
On Saturday, the Wolverines (5-7-2 Big Ten, 10-10-2 overall) defeated the ninth-ranked Golden Gophers, 3-1, putting finality on their most impressive weekend of the season.
After falling 5-3 a night prior, one might have expected Minnesota (4-9-1, 13-12-1) to come out in attack mode Saturday. But instead, Michigan blitzed the Gophers out of the gate.
The Wolverines couldn’t do anything wrong to begin the game. The puck practically never left Minnesota’s zone, and every pass by a Michigan player seemed to hit the sweet spot of his teammates’ stick.
While the Wolverines didn’t score 15 seconds into the game as they did Friday, that hardly mattered — they needed just 58 more seconds this time. Junior forward Brendan Warren, on the heels of a two-goal outing, took the puck on the right wing, skated in front of the crease and snapped the game’s first score past Eric Schierhorn.
A minute later, freshman forward Josh Norris bullied his way towards the net with the puck, but a replay review determined that it did not cross the plane of the goal. An undeterred Norris, however, was rewarded for his efforts shortly after, streaking down the ice and lacing a one-timer off a pinpoint pass from sophomore forward Jake Slaker.
After a dizzying first eight minutes of hockey, Michigan led in shots, 8-0, and in goals, 2-0.
“I thought yesterday we had some good chemistry,” Norris said. “And tonight we got a couple quick ones first five minutes, so that felt good.”
The Gophers managed to turn the tide slightly — granted, simply possessing the puck in the Wolverines’ zone for any length of time would have counted as such for these purposes — but did little with their eight shot attempts in the first period, all of which were saved by sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne.
However, it wasn’t any of those shots that told the story of Minnesota’s night. On a power-play late in the first, forward Casey Mittelstadt cruised into the slot, gearing up for a golden opportunity to score. But all he did was uncork a weak knuckler that bounced well wide of the net.
The Gophers capitalized late on their second power play, though. A series of desperate swings at the puck by a cadre of Michigan defenders couldn’t knock it away from Darian Romanko, who gave Minnesota some life with 4:34 remaining in the second period.
But that momentum didn’t last long. After Minnesota’s Sam Rossini was sent to the box for roughing, senior forward Tony Calderone set up behind the net and found junior forward Cooper Marody just behind the red line. Somehow, Marody precisely angled his shot up and into the goal.
The third period saw no goals and just 10 shots combined for both teams — a surprisingly anti-climactic ending to the Wolverines’ biggest road win of the season.
That anticlimax was, in large part, a result of a marked improvement on special teams, after Michigan coach Mel Pearson stated that he “didn’t like” his team’s penalty kill on Friday. The Wolverines spread all over the ice to block shots from the Gophers’ power play in the third period, but according to Pearson, Lavigne, who registered 17 saves on 18 opportunities, was most responsible for the special teams’ success.
“I thought we did a great job penalty killing,” Pearson said. “Your goaltender’s got to be your best penalty killer… The one we killed in the third period was excellent. Blocking shots, doing a lot of good things, getting sticks.”
With 1:53 left to play, during the final timeout of the game, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” began to echo throughout Mariucci Arena. At that point, though, faced with a confident and rock-solid Michigan defense, it seemed like the few Minnesota fans left in the building had long ago ceased to do so.
The Wolverines, meanwhile, arrived in Minneapolis earlier this weekend ranked No. 27 in the PairWise rankings, far below the cutoff for NCAA Tournament contention. Coming away with a positive result of any kind seemed absolutely necessary. Winning one game would have likely been seen as a solid weekend.
Sweeping the No. 9 team in the nation, in one of the toughest places in college hockey for visitors to play, where they hadn’t done so in multiple generations? That’s closer to unbelievable.
And now, after a historic weekend, Michigan returns to Ann Arbor after jumping 12 spots in Pairwise and recording its first sweep in Minnesota in decades.
This weekend could have been a mortal blow to the once-slipping belief in the Wolverines’ postseason chances. The end result couldn’t have been more different.
“This is a huge weekend for us in terms of standings, Pairwise, so we’re just going to enjoy the win,” Lavigne said. “It’s hard to sweep anywhere, let alone on the road.”
Added Pearson: “You let them enjoy it. We haven’t had one for a while, it was good to sing the song, and we’ll let them enjoy it until Monday. Then we’ll get back to work.”