Suddenly, the Gophers men's hockey team must root for Michigan State if it wants to win the Big Ten regular-season title.
With Friday night's 5-2 loss to Michigan at 3M Arena at Mariucci, the third-ranked Gophers no longer can claim the Big Ten title on their own. By falling to the No. 7 Wolverines, Minnesota ceded control of the Big Ten race to Wisconsin, a 4-0 victor over Michigan State on Friday.
"They wanted it a little bit more than we did," Gophers winger Bryce Brodzinski said of the Wolverines, adding that his team focused too much on winning the conference championship "instead of just winning this hockey game."
If the Badgers (.717 Big Ten winning percentage) finish the sweep of the Spartans, they will claim the regular-season title and bye into the Big Ten tournament semifinals with a .729 winning percentage in league games. The Gophers, who are at .714 after the loss, could win the title at .727 if they win Saturday and Wisconsin either loses or ties. If the Gophers and Michigan tie Saturday, Minnesota would need a Badgers loss to claim the title. Because of an unequal number of league games played, the Big Ten is using winning percentage, not total points, to set its standings.
The Gophers (19-6, 15-6 Big Ten) put themselves in this position by suffering their first loss in five games. Their power play moved the puck well but couldn't capitalize again, scoreless in its past 12 attempts. And Wolverines goalie Strauss Mann was the source of much of Minnesota's angst, stopping 28 shots.
"We had frustration on the bench," Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. "This is one of the things we've got to learn is that when we get in tough, tight games like this, we got to stick to it."
Matty Beniers had a goal and three assists for the Wolverines, and second-period goals by Kent Johnson and Jack Summers enabled Michigan (14-8-1, 11-8-1) to seize control after Brodzinski tied it 1-1 in the second. Sampo Ranta's goal cut the lead to 3-2 with eight minutes to play before the Wolverines pulled away. Jack LaFontaine made 14 saves for the Gophers, who outshot the Wolverines 30-19.
"When the game got really tough, we got frustrated and started pressing," Motzko said, "and their guys rose to the occasion."
The Gophers had two power plays, including a 5-on-3, in the game's first five minutes, but Michigan killed both. Conversely, the Wolverines cashed in on the man advantage when Thomas Bordeleau scored at 15:28 of the first for a 1-0 lead.
In the theme of the night, Michigan had the better push-back. Following Brodzinski's goal in the second, Johnson backhanded a shot over LaFontaine at 12:21, and Summers one-timed a pass from Beniers for a 3-1 lead with 59 seconds left.
"They outworked us in the second," Brodzinski said.
The Gophers pressed in the third, and Ranta made it 3-2 at 12:00 with a snipe into the upper-left corner. Then came another Michigan response on Nick Granowicz's rebound goal for a 4-2 lead at 15:00 and Beniers' empty-net goal with 1:22 to play.
"Every once in a while, teams are going to bite back," Motzko said. "That's where we have not played well. … We've got to wipe that out."