The Gophers treated their fans to a thrilling comeback overtime victory in the win-or-season’s-over Big Ten tournament Friday at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
All 1,835 of them.
Yep, that was the announced crowd for the quarterfinal matchup with No. 6-seeded Michigan, where the No. 3-seeded Gophers rebounded from a two-goal deficit to force overtime and eventually win 3-2 on Brannon McManus’ goal.
The paltry attendance — as the 8,165 empty seats evidenced — had some explanation, though the Gophers have struggled to fill Mariucci all season. The high school state tournament at Xcel Energy Center is surely diverting much attention.
“We’re in the playoffs. We’re focused on what’s in front of us,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said when asked if the few fans had an effect on his team’s energy. “They know there’s a big crowd eight miles from here. It’s a pretty tough night to have a hockey game in the state of Minnesota.”
That certainly was true for the Gophers for at least the first half of the game. Motzko said his team had a “flat tire” the first period — it took it until the 11-minute mark to record its first shots — and he could tell players were dejected, yelling at each other on the bench.
Michigan started with much more pressure, scoring its first at 8 minutes, 28 seconds in the first period off Michael Pastujov — or rather, the Gophers’ Brent Gates Jr., who caught the deflection.
Michigan doubled its lead early in the second period, with Will Lockwood poking the puck past Mat Robson. But the Gophers finally started to dispel their bad start and bad feelings when Tyler Sheehy backhanded in a score with about five minutes left in the period.
“Early on, you would have seen us shut down and come out and just have a lackadaisical effort,” Sheehy said. “But we just kept fighting, and that’s kind of the identity to our team these past few weeks is, we’re playing some really good teams, some really tight games, and we’re able to stick to our structure and come out with a win.”
The all-freshman line — with Sampo Ranta replacing an injured Nathan Burke — combined for Blake McLaughlin’s tying goal from a saucy Sammy Walker pass about halfway through the third period.
Michigan faced its fourth consecutive overtime game, having lost the previous three to Ohio State and Wisconsin, the last of which kept the Wolverines from home ice in this tournament. And this overtime was even worse for them, as they lost their top player, defenseman Quinn Hughes, to an apparent injury late in regulation.
The Gophers’ power play was the fitting end to the game at 10:10 of OT. The unit, which ranks eighth in the nation at about 24 percent, converted when Rem Pitlick fed McManus for the game-winner.
“Big-time power plays score in big-time games,” McManus said. “Especially in big-time moments like that.”
Game 2 of the best-of-three series is Saturday. And Motzko, at least, shared a little bit of dark humor about the crowd prospects.
“Let’s just keep winning. Let’s see if we can do it again [Saturday], and we can’t worry about anything else,” he said. “Well, then you add in, I hear there’s a snowstorm. They’ve now lowered it to 8 inches?
“So, boy, it’s going to be better.”