ANN ARBOR, MICH. – When one plays for a legendary program with a rich tradition and history, the opportunities to accomplish a feat none have previously achieved are rare. When the Gophers hockey team had a chance to do just that Friday by beating Michigan in Ann Arbor, it seized the opportunity.
Kyle Rau scored a power-play goal with 2 minutes, 16 seconds left in overtime, lifting the Gophers (25-4-6, 14-2-3-0) to a 3-2 victory over the Wolverines at Yost Ice Arena, clinching the inaugural Big Ten regular-season title for nation’s top-ranked team. It’s also the first time in school history the Gophers have won three consecutive regular-season championships. They earned WCHA crowns in 2012 and 2013.
“At the end of last year, we talked about how we wanted to get a piece of that WCHA championship, and coming into this year, it was going to be the first Big Ten title,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “That was our goal when the year began.”
The Wolverines (17-12-4, 9-8-2-1) had effectively bottled the Gophers’ top line of Rau, Sam Warning and Hudson Fasching for 60-plus minutes. So when Michigan’s Derek DeBlois received a minor penalty for hooking 1:55 into overtime, Rau knew it was his team’s best chance to end the game.
“We haven’t been that good at shootouts this year,” Rau said. “I think we’ve been in six overtime games and haven’t won one. That was brought up this week.”
Fasching bulled his way to the front of the net with the puck, but Michigan goalie Zach Nagelvoort steered his shot aside. Rau corralled the rebound and, sensing Nagelvoort still was sprawled on the ice, tucked the puck underneath the crossbar.
“Who else but Kyle Rau? That’s what he does — score big goals,” Lucia said. “You’ve got to make a play when you get a power-play opportunity like that.”
The Gophers struck first when defenseman Brady Skjei’s point shot sailed past Nagelvoort for a 1-0 lead a little more than nine minutes into the first period. Michigan responded with goals from Evan Allen and Andrew Copp to take a 2-1 lead into the first intermission.
“Michigan was the better team in the first period,” Lucia said. “We had some nervousness to our game. We weren’t talking. The communication was much better as the game went on, and [goalie] Adam [Wilcox] made a couple key saves to keep us in it.”
Freshman forward Justin Kloos tied the score at 2-2 late in the second period with a highlight-reel goal. He gathered a pass from defenseman Mike Reilly in front of the Gophers bench, darted to the center of the ice, and, just before getting flattened by a Wolverines defenseman, fired a shot over Nagelvoort’s shoulder for his 12th goal.
The scoreless third period was largely devoid of quality scoring chances. The two teams combined for 10 shots on goal, setting the stage for Rau’s winner.
“It’s pretty cool,” Rau said of his title-clinching goal, “but when you come here, you don’t come to win conference championships. You come for something else.”