The doom and gloom of the Gophers’ regular season faded into the background for a moment on Saturday night at Mariucci Arena. The Gophers celebrated a Big Ten Conference championship after blowing by Penn State for the second consecutive night, 6-2, putting a positive spin on what has been a season of uncertainty.
It’s the fourth consecutive conference championship for the Gophers and the senior class that’s now won both Big Ten regular-season titles. The streak started with two WCHA championships.
“A month and half, two months ago, who would have thought we’d be standing here,” senior captain Kyle Rau said.
“But I’m really proud of the guys and I think we’re really growing as a hockey team and catching our stride at the right time of the year.”
The Gophers were mediocre two months ago, still struggling to identify roles within the lineup. The program fell out of the national rankings for the first time since 2011, and to the bottom third of the Big Ten standings.
Uncertainty began to set in among the group that had been proclaimed college hockey’s preseason No. 1 and the Big Ten favorite. Then the seniors rounded up the loose ends and put it all together the final weekend of the regular season.
The seniors scored five points, three goals, two from Rau and one from Seth Ambroz, on Senior Night. Rau’s line combined for eight points, fueled by sophomore Hudson Fasching’s career-best four points, two goals and two assists, and Leon Bristedt’s two assists.
Goaltender Adam Wilcox had 29 saves and gave up just two goals in the Gophers’ first series sweep in a month.
The Gophers could have finished as low as fourth place in the standings and lost any shot for an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament with a bad final weekend, but instead put together two of their best efforts of the season.
“Last year, the road was pretty smooth getting there. This year, we had to meander a little bit to do that and it’s never easy to win a championship,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “To our guys credit, we came out of the month of January and we played some pretty good hockey. Adam [Wilcox] got back on his game … Our seniors have done a phenomenal job here in the last month.”
Along with the trophy and banner, the Gophers get the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye for next week’s Big Ten tournament in Detroit. They’ve also improved their resume for an NCAA tournament berth.
It took all 36 games of the regular season for the Gophers to show that they still have the same skill that drove last year’s Frozen Four run, but they showcased it in a big way by outscoring Penn State 11-2.
The news that a win would equate to a fourth consecutive conference title — after Michigan’s loss — made it to the Gophers before they took the ice. The seniors are the only class in program history to win four regular-season championships.
“I don’t think anyone has ever done it here in the [94-year history]. It’s something special,” Ambroz said about the feat.
“We finally came together here later on in the season and were able to play the way we can consistently and that’s what we needed to do.”