Columbus, Ohio – The Gophers men's hockey team came into this weekend's series with Ohio State knowing that two victories would seal the inaugural Big Ten regular season championship.
One down, one to go.
With three goals in the span of 3:08 in the second period, the top-ranked Gophers broke out to a 5-1 lead and eased to the victory by the same score over the Buckeyes on Friday night. The performance kept the Gophers seven points ahead of second-place Wisconsin, a 4-2 winner at Penn State on Friday night.
"We knew tonight we could lock up one of the top two spots in the league, and that was the only thing we could control," Gophers coach Don Lucia said. "We didn't want to leave the door open for someone to come from behind and catch us."
The Gophers (24-4-5, 13-2-2-0 Big Ten) ensured the Buckeyes wouldn't spring any surprises, jumping out to a 2-0 lead after the first period behind goals from Justin Kloos and Kyle Rau.
Netminder Adam Wilcox did his part as well, stopping all 13 shots he faced in the first period, but it was a quick reaction save, sliding across the crease to stuff Ohio State forward Tanner Fritz on the doorstep with his right pad at the 4:35 mark of the second, that helped keep the momentum with the Gophers.
"It was critical for us to get off to that good start and grab that 2-0 lead and settle into the smaller rink," Lucia said. "That save Wilcox made early in the second period to keep the lead, that was the key save of the game, and it's what he's done all year for us."
"He's the backbone of our team, a very competitive guy," said sophomore defenseman Mike Reilly, who collected three assists. "He just wants to win, and he'll do anything he can to stop the puck."
Less than five minutes later, freshman Taylor Cammarata scored his ninth goal of the season to give Minnesota a 3-0 lead, though Fritz would get one back for the Buckeyes (15-12-4, 5-8-4-3) just 36 seconds later.
Before the Buckeyes could gain any momentum from the goal, Connor Reilly notched his sixth goal of the season just 1:11 later, chasing Ohio State starting goaltender Christian Frey from the contest.
Vinni Lettieri then welcomed Frey's replacement, Matt Tomkins, to the game by burying a short-angle shot inside the near post 21 seconds after Reilly's goal and effectively squashing any hopes of a Buckeye upset.
Nine different players picked up at least a point on the night, led by three-point nights from Cammarata and Mike Reilly, Connor's younger brother.
"We really want to establish a four-line game, and get scoring from all our lines and get our defensemen involved in the offense," Mike Reilly said. "That kind of balance is going to be huge for us come playoff time."
Wilcox finished with 30 saves in collecting his 22nd victory of the year.
Frey stopped 16 shots in taking the loss for Ohio State, while Tomkins made 12 saves in relief.