Minnesota interim athletic director Beth Goetz handed off the Big Ten championship trophy to Gophers captain Justin Kloos.
The pair celebrated together on the ice, and for a moment everything negative surrounding the men’s hockey program and university seemed to fade. The Gophers won their fifth consecutive regular-season championship and third since joining the Big Ten with Saturday’s 4-1 victory over Wisconsin at Mariucci Arena.
The journey getting to Saturday’s postgame celebration, though, was clouded with uncertainty and disappointment. While the university continued to battle issues within the athletic department, its historically stable hockey program fell into a state of inconsistency for a second straight season. The Gophers, however, once again managed to find new life during the Big Ten schedule and for at least one night, on Saturday, restore hope that this program is still among the elite in college hockey.
“It’s important” for the university and men’s hockey to have success, Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “Hanging banners is what we talk about. It’s not easy to hang banners.
“I’m most happy for our players because they’re the ones that have to fight through it. It’s not easy here when you’re not winning every game.”
Leading scorers Leon Bristedt, Hudson Fasching and Justin Kloos stepped up when needed most. Bristedt scored two goals and had an assist, Kloos had a goal and two assists, and Fasching contributed a goal and an assist. Freshman goaltender Eric Schierhorn had 24 saves.
Michigan beat Penn State 6-1 Saturday night, which meant the Gophers needed a victory to secure the outright title.
“It was a new set of leaders that needed to prove they could do it, and we stepped up when it mattered,” Kloos said. “Our back has been up against the wall constantly this year, and we’ve just found a way when it matters to get a win.”
“[A Big Ten title is] a goal we set every year, and this year it wasn’t necessarily for certain and we had our ups and downs,” Fasching said, “and we battled hard and it feels that much better just because of how hard we worked for this.”
Wisconsin took an early 1-0 lead, but Bristedt’s shorthanded goal tied the score in the second period and Fasching and Kloos scored power-play goals in the third.
Though the Gophers rallied for a third consecutive Big Ten title, they might have lost any shot at one of the 10 at-large bids into the NCAA tournament. The weekend split — Wisconsin won 4-3 Friday — bumped the Gophers to No. 19 in the PairWise Rankings. The statistical comparison mimics how the NCAA selection committee fills out its field after six teams get automatic bids by winning conference tournaments. Saturday’s victory moved them in a tie for No. 18.
The Gophers entered the weekend on the bubble at No. 17. And Lucia had hoped that a series sweep would put his team in position for an at-large bid, but the Gophers will need to win the Big Ten tournament now.