In his giddiness over another Big Ten championship, Gophers defenseman Jack Sadek temporarily lost track of exactly what his team had accomplished Friday night. “Five conference championships in a row, or six,” said the sophomore, who scored twice in a 4-0 victory over Michigan State. “It’s just awesome.”
The official count varies, depending on which milestone is being discussed. The fifth-ranked Gophers captured their fourth consecutive Big Ten regular-season championship, taking the crown outright with their victory at Mariucci Arena and Wisconsin’s loss to Ohio State. They also won their sixth regular-season league title in a row, dating back to the two WCHA championships they earned in their final two years as members of that league.
The Gophers (23-10-2, 14-5 Big Ten) became the first program in college hockey history to string together a half-dozen regular-season conference titles. They did it by getting goals from three infrequent scorers — including Sadek — and an assured performance from goalie Eric Schierhorn, who recorded his fifth shutout of the season.
The regular season ends Saturday, with the series finale against Michigan State (7-23-3, 3-14-2). It will be hard to top the satisfaction the Gophers felt Friday, when they dropped their sticks and helmets, skated joyously to center ice and held a Big Ten trophy no other team has raised.
“It’s so hard to do,” said Lucia, who has coached the Gophers to eight of the program’s 18 regular-season conference titles. “We moved to the Big Ten [in 2013], and to win it all four years, and six times in a row, it’s great for our program.
“We always talk about the importance of trying to hang banners. Forever, now, this group can come to Mariucci Arena with their kids and look up and say, ‘You know what? I was part of that championship.’ ”
The Gophers were well aware of the history they could make this weekend, though Lucia cautioned them not to think in those terms. He wanted them to focus on the big picture — next week’s Big Ten tournament, and the NCAA tournament that will follow — and on the small details required to win.
They carried out a solid defensive game plan, limiting Michigan State to 24 shots on goal and few high-quality scoring chances. The Spartans’ best opportunities came early; after that, the Gophers bottled them up.
Sadek struck twice on nearly identical shots in the first period. He launched the puck from the right point and beat Spartans goalie John Lethemon at 7 minutes, 52 seconds, then did it again at 16:36 for a 2-0 lead. Darian Romanko finished off a two-on-one by scoring on Jack Ramsey’s feed at 11:31 of the third, and Ryan Collins added a goal at 19:12.
Sadek and Romanko had scored one goal each this season, and Collins had scored two.
“We had confidence we were going to win, and we played with confidence,” Sadek said. “I don’t think I’ve scored twice in a game my whole life. It feels good to help out the team in a big game.”
Though the championship has been won, Saturday’s game still carries importance. The Gophers are trying to improve their NCAA tournament seeding, and six seniors will be honored before the game. Lucia said Mitch Rogge, a senior from Eden Prairie who has played only in exhibition games during three seasons with the Gophers, will be in the lineup.
Schierhorn expects it to be an emotional night — just like Friday, when he and senior Justin Kloos beamed as they hoisted the silver Big Ten trophy.
“It feels great,” he said. “It’s kind of cool, at least for now, to be part of the record books.”