ANN ARBOR, MICH. – Forgive the Gophers hockey team if it were peering ahead to the Big Ten tournament.
With starting goaltender Adam Wilcox manning the door at one end of the team bench, forward Sam Warning, the team’s second-leading scorer, in street clothes, and the league’s regular-season title in hand, coach Don Lucia approached Saturday’s game at Michigan clearly focused on next week’s proceedings in St. Paul.
The result was a 6-2 loss to the Wolverines in Saturday’s regular-season finale. The top-ranked Gophers (25-5-6, 14-3-3-0 Big Ten) play at 7 p.m. Friday at Xcel Energy Center against the winner of Thursday’s game between Ohio State and Michigan State. Michigan (18-12-4, 10-8-2-1) draws Penn State Thursday, with winner advancing to face second-seeded Wisconsin.
“We made some decisions with our lineup that were in our best interest for next weekend,” Lucia said. “We wanted to give Adam a rest. We wanted to make sure Sam was as healthy as he could be heading into next weekend.”
The Gophers outplayed the Wolverines in the game’s first 20 minutes and were especially sharp during their lone power-play opportunity that generated three shots on goal and twice as many scoring chances. Still, Michigan led 1-0 at the break. Alex Guptill beat Gophers goalie Mike Shibrowski with a high, glove-side shot on a slow-developing play aided when defenseman Ben Marshall lost his bearings in the defensive zone.
Michigan’s second goal — only 22 seconds after the intermission and the start of the Wolverines’ four-goal, second-period onslaught — was a back-breaker. Defenseman Michael Downing’s shot caromed off the plexiglass behind the Gophers net and right to forward Luke Moffatt standing by himself in front of the net. Moffatt swatted the airborne puck past Shibrowski, who was looking for the rebound in the other direction.
“You’re on the road, puck goes off the plexiglass, guy bats it out of the air. Nice play on his part to go up 2-0,” Lucia said. “It was a tough night for Shibby. Tonight, maybe he would’ve liked to have a couple shots back.”
Moffatt added his second goal of the game during the Wolverines’ first power play of the second period, one-timing a feed from JT Compher past Shibrowski. Zach Hyman and Phil Di Giuseppi scored goals two minutes apart later in the period to give Michigan a commanding 5-0 lead.
The Gophers stemmed the Wolverines’ goal rush late in the second period when defenseman Brady Skjei, who ended a 15-game goal drought in Friday’s overtime win against Michigan, got his second goal in as many nights with 2:10 remaining. The sophomore from Lakeville notched his second of the game and sixth of the season a little less than three minutes into the third period. Stationed just inside the near point, Skjei wristed a floater past Wolverines goalie Zach Nagelvoort.
Skjei’s goals bookended a shorthanded breakaway tally by the Wolverines’ Andrew Copp 30 seconds into the third period. Michigan’s Tyler Motte sprawled out to tip a loose puck past a pinching Gophers defenseman and into the neutral zone, where Copp picked it up and beat Shibrowski, who made 22 saves on 28 shots, with a nifty backhand.
“Tonight wasn’t our best game and the puck wasn’t bouncing our way,” Skjei said. “We’ll put it behind us and get ready for the playoffs next weekend.”