After the Gophers swept Michigan in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals, Gophers coach Bob Motzko instructed his players to skate to the student section and give it a special acknowledgment, even though Saturday’s announced attendance of 1,911 was only 76 people stronger than Friday.
“We all wish it was better, yeah, but we had a game to play,” Motzko said. “We didn’t have a big crowd, but let’s go salute the guys that did show up. And they were loud. You could hear them. There was enthusiasm in that building.
“We’re not playing for the people that weren’t here. We’re playing for the ones that showed up.”
The crowd that did make the trek to 3M Arena at Mariucci despite an impending snowstorm and appealing high school hockey state tournament in St. Paul saw a hat trick of goals in the first period en route to the Gophers’ 4-1 victory. The result also advanced the Gophers to the Big Ten tournament’s single-elimination semifinals next Saturday. The Gophers will travel to No. 2 seed Notre Dame, which swept bottom-seeded Michigan State, winning 1-0 and 2-0.
Gophers senior winger Tyler Sheehy said it occurred to him toward the end of the game that this could have been his final game at Mariucci. And while that’s a sad prospect, it isn’t a daunting one.
“Anywhere we go or wherever we’re playing, we’re going to be pretty confident,” Sheehy said. “We’ve got a good feeling in the group right now that we can beat anybody in the country.”
No. 1 seed Ohio State, which had a bye through the quarterfinals, will play host to the other semifinal next Sunday. BTN will broadcast both games. The Buckeyes will face either No. 4 seed Penn State or No. 5 seed Wisconsin, as the two head to a tiebreaker game Sunday.
The Gophers (18-15-4) must win the conference tournament to qualify for the NCAA field. Michigan ends its season 13-16-7.
While Friday’s echoey arena led to a slow start for the Gophers, Saturday was a burst from the beginning.
Tommy Novak put the Gophers up early about five minutes into the game. Scott Reedy then spun a shot in at 12:42. Rem Pitlick weaved through Michigan’s zone for his own score with five minutes left in the period.
The Gophers’ power play ended the overtime game Friday, and Michigan avoided a penalty until the end of the second period. But the top-10 unit in the nation at 23.9 percent entering this game doesn’t need many opportunities, and Pitlick netted his second of the night on a one-timer.
Michigan’s Adam Winborg robbed Mat Robson of his first shutout of the season, jamming in a goal at 13:39 in the third period. Robson ended with 22 saves.
Sheehy called this performance good but not perfect. And yet, the Gophers have kept finding ways to win in seven of their past eight games. Pitlick was pretty businesslike in his assessment of the Gophers: It’s not surprising they are playing well since this has always been what the team is capable of.
“We know we have it, as I’ve said, like, a million times now,” Pitlick said of that mysterious “it” factor. “I think we have it.”