DETROIT – It hadn’t been done by a Gophers men’s hockey team in five years. With their season likely on the line, though, this year’s group knew it was necessary to taste success in a conference tournament.
The Gophers survived at least another day and did a lot to help their chances for an NCAA tournament berth with a 3-0 victory over Ohio State in Friday afternoon’s Big Ten Conference tournament semifinals at Joe Louis Arena.
They advance to play in a conference tournament championship game for the first time since 2008 and are victorious in conference playoffs for the first time since 2010. It’s also the first conference playoff victory for the decorated senior class.
The Gophers (22-12-3) will play Michigan, a 4-1 semifinal winner over Michigan State, on Saturday night for the title. A victory would earn them the Big Ten’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. A loss would leave them hoping to earn an at-large berth.
“I think we felt a little bit of pressure [Friday]. We knew how important this game was and that we had to win,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said.
“I felt comfortable with the way Adam [Wilcox] was playing. … It was one of those nights where you look at your goaltender and say, ‘I don’t think they’re going to score one tonight.’ That’s how it ended up.”
The all-senior line of Sam Warning, Travis Boyd and Seth Ambroz gave the Gophers the only goal they would need early in the second period when Warning’s shot deflected in off the bottom of the crossbar.
Junior goaltender Wilcox took over from there. He had 39 saves for his sixth shutout of the season and the 13th of his career, becoming the program’s all-time shutouts leader with Kellen Briggs. He was three saves short of a season high and had 15 more saves than his previous season-high total in a shutout.
“I thought it was a great way to get [the record]. Any time you can get a shutout in the playoffs, it’s a great feeling. Getting something like that was pretty cool, too,” Wilcox said before turning the praise to the senior class.
“Look at the seniors’ résumé. They have two Frozen Fours and four conference championships and a national championship [appearance] under their belt. But what they haven’t had was a conference playoff win. I thought coming in we had a good mentality. We didn’t put too much pressure on ourselves even with what the circumstances were. Even if we did lose, I didn’t think we let that get to our heads.”
The six-member senior class had a big hand in the Gophers’ ability to buck the trend of the program’s recent conference playoff shortcomings. Boyd, a senior forward, forced a turnover by Ohio State (14-19-3) early in the second period and found senior forward Warning alone in front of the goal, where he converted for the 1-0 lead.
Senior defenseman Ben Marshall set up the insurance goal with a hard shot from the top of the left circle that Buckeyes goaltender Christian Frey was unable to handle. The puck bounced over Frey’s shoulder and trickled toward the goal line, where Vinni Lettieri found it and punched it in for a 2-0 lead at 10:45 in the third period.
Boyd also scored an empty-net goal with just less than five minutes left in the game to secure the victory, but it was Wilcox who made the biggest statement for the Gophers’ campaign for an NCAA tournament bid. Through Friday, the Gophers sat in 10th place in the PairWise Rankings, which mimic the formula the NCAA uses to select its 16-team field. They are not guaranteed to make the field if they lose Saturday.
Wilcox had a number of highlight-worthy saves, including five in a stretch of about a minute late in the third period. He went left to right diving to stuff Matt Johnson and then deflected the rebound opportunity. He denied two more high-quality scoring chances while falling into the net, and then beat David Gust one-on-one in front of the goal to keep his shutout intact.
“We had to understand that it’s do-or-die this time of the year and [heading into Friday we weren’t] in the safest spot,” Ambroz said. “It’s nice to know we got a nice bump there, and we want to win a championship, and as a senior class we haven’t been able to do that. So I think it will be a special opportunity for us, and we’ll give our best effort and hopefully take home a trophy.”