DETROIT – Don Lucia used the words “roller coaster” when describing his team’s journey leading to Saturday night’s Big Ten tournament championship victory, a 4-2 edging of Michigan that completed a season-saving tournament sweep.
If the Gophers could adopt a name for its roller-coaster ride, it’d likely be “Boomerang.”
The Gophers, the preseason No. 1 team in the nation that eventually fell out of the polls in January and heard boos at Mariucci Arena, fought their way back to the top of the Big Ten this weekend in Detroit, capped by a frantic tournament final triumph over the Wolverines in their back yard at Joe Louis Arena.
The championship run gives Minnesota an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament, barely more than 24 hours after it was facing a win-or-else scenario. A week after securing the regular-season championship on the final day of conference play, the Gophers now have two season goals in the bag — and bigger ones in sight.
“I’m just proud of how the guys have responded and what they’ve been able to accomplish. This season has been a bit of a roller coaster, and we’ve kind of ridden it out,” Lucia said.
“We knew going in that had we not won on Friday, that in all likelihood our season would end,’’ the coach added. “… We wanted to come here and try and earn our way in, and that’s what we really did here the last few weeks.”
The Gophers (23-12-4) battled back by winning 11 of their last 14 games and winning four in a row to clinch a Big Ten championship sweep — regular season and tournament — and a spot in the NCAAs. Entering Sunday’s NCAA selection announcement, the Gophers are No. 10 in the PairWise Rankings, which mimic the formula the NCAA uses to pick its 16-team field. They are in line to be a No. 3 seed in one of the four regionals.
Before this stretch of success, last season’s national runners-up were on the verge of being a .500 team and had fallen out of the college hockey rankings for the first time since 2011.
A senior class that had not won a conference tournament game until this weekend led the turnaround effort and helped secure the program’s first conference tournament title since 2007. Senior captain Kyle Rau scored a goal and had an assist, and senior forward Travis Boyd had two goals in Saturday.
Junior goaltender Adam Wilcox made 24 saves a day after shutting out Ohio State. Justin Kloos scored the game-winning goal 9:29 into the third period on one of two successful Gophers power plays.
“[The roller-coaster ride] has got to be over now,” Boyd said. “The good thing is we’re playing the best hockey of the year going into the NCAA tournament, and that’s obviously something that every team wants to do and I’m happy with where our team is at.
“It’s almost like we took our game up another notch [on Saturday].”
Michigan (22-15) fell one game short of a Big Ten regular-season title and conference tournament championship on back-to-back weekends and will miss the NCAA tournament for a third straight year after 22 consecutive appearances.
“Sure it stings. We put ourselves in this spot, and we couldn’t get out of it,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said.
Kloos spoiled Michigan’s night on the Gophers’ fifth power play of the game when he maneuvered his way past a diving a Wolverines defenseman and unloaded the puck while falling to the ice. Wilcox handled the rest for the Gophers, who were outshot in each of the final two periods, stuffing several good scoring chances by Michigan in the final 10 minutes.
The Gophers will be the Big Ten’s only representative in the NCAA tournament. They’ll enjoy Sunday morning’s selection show at 11 a.m. on ESPNU, knowing that their spot is secure. The only thing in question is where they’ll play.
“We knew going into [the semifinals] we needed to come out and get a win and [even Saturday] we knew there was a small chance we couldn’t make the tournament if we didn’t win. But we didn’t want to leave it up to chance,” Rau said. “When we get a full team effort going, we’re a tough team to beat.
“Two months ago, who thought we’d be here. … No one gave up on each other.”