On the evening of Feb. 6, the Gophers left 3M Arena at Mariucci with their tails between their legs, having been embarrassed 8-1 by Wisconsin in a series in which they were outscored 12-2. Gophers coach Bob Motzko promised his team would "wear this one'' rather than trying to forget it.
A month later, the Gophers still are wearing it, and the silk screening on the garment reads "Big Ten hockey runners-up'' after Minnesota over the weekend let its chance to win the league's regular-season title slip away. Even an efficient 4-2 victory over seventh-ranked Michigan in Saturday's finale at Mariucci couldn't change the math for the third-ranked Gophers.
The Big Ten champions label goes to Wisconsin, which beat Michigan State 2-1 Saturday to complete a series sweep. The Badgers, who are 3-1 against Minnesota, finished with a conference winning percentage of .729, edging the Gophers' .727.
"We didn't lose it last night,'' Motzko said of Friday's 5-2 defeat that opened the door for Wisconsin. "We lost it when Wisconsin came in here, Notre Dame [too].''
Because of an unequal number of games played, the Big Ten used winning percentage in conference games, not total points, to set its standings. The NCHC, in comparison, is using points per game. Had the Big Ten used that method instead, the Gophers would have won the title, 2.18 points per game to Wisconsin's 2.17.
"I wish we would've went the other way,'' Motzko deadpanned.
The Gophers (20-6, 16-6 Big Ten) will enter the Big Ten tournament as the No. 2 seed and will face Michigan State in the quarterfinals on March 14. Fifth-ranked Wisconsin (19-8-1, 17-6-1) got the first-round bye into the semifinals.
All is not lost for the Gophers, though. They still can chase three banners — the Big Ten tournament, an NCAA regional and the national championship. To reach that level, however, this team will need to compete much better against strong tournament opponents.
Against the bottom three teams in the Big Ten (Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State) and independent Arizona State, the Gophers were 14-0 and outscored those teams by a combined 69-20. Against the other three teams in the Big Ten's top four (Wisconsin, Michigan, Notre Dame), the Gophers were 6-6 — 1-5 at home — and outscored 31-30.
Saturday, though, was a step in the right direction toward wearing a different label.
"We played a good hockey game tonight, start to finish,'' Motzko said. "… This was a good win for us.''
The Gophers took a first-period lead on Bryce Brodzinski's second goal of the series. After Michigan (14-9-1, 11-9-1) tied it 1-1 only 55 seconds later, the Gophers didn't panic. Instead, Scott Reedy put them ahead 2-1 in the second with a goal that ended a 0-for-12 power-play drought. And Blake McLaughlin gave the Gophers separation with a goal that made 3-1 at 3:39 of the third, five seconds after a dominant Gophers power play ended.
"We knew we had to take this game seriously and create momentum for us going forward,'' said Reedy, who acknowledged that the Gophers were aware that Wisconsin had clinched the title before they took the ice. "… We came out to win this game.''
The Wolverines' Jack Becker made it 3-2 with 2:57 left, but Gophers defenseman Ryan Johnson scored an empty-netter from his own goal line with 1:37 to play for his first career goal. Jack LaFontaine rebounded by making 22 saves.
"We had a good look to us tonight,'' Motzko said. "Maybe that's how we're going to have to win big games. We've got to keep the score tight and play a heavy game and very intelligent game.''