Just as the puck was about to drop at 3M Arena at Mariucci on Friday, something of a miracle was happening in Madison. The last-place Badgers pulled off a win over Ohio State, officially eliminating the Buckeyes from a chance at the Big Ten title.
With Penn State done for the regular season, the Gophers were the masters of their own fate to overtake them in the standings and claim the Big Ten regular season title. But what followed was a disappointing weekend against Michigan that resulted in just one point and no title to speak of.
The result: The No. 4 seed for the Big Ten Tournament, which keeps the Gophers at home for the first round of the playoffs but almost guarantees that will be their last home series of the season. They host Notre Dame for a best two-out-three quarterfinal series.
Gophers tie 2-2, but Michigan secures the extra point in a shootout
Minnesota came back from a two-goal deficit in the third period but couldn't find the back of the net in extra time or the shootout on Friday, coming away with just one point. Michigan's Jake Slacker scored in the shootout's second round to give the Wolverines the extra conference point.
Jack LaFontaine, who spent two seasons at Michigan, was in net for the Gophers and made 27 saves.
The third period started off four-on-four to complete penalties called in the final minutes of the second, and while the Gophers had several good chances on net, the Wolverines were able to strike first to build their lead to 2-0. However, Minnesota scored two minutes later as Jackson LaCombe netted his third goal of the season.
Later in the period, while going after the puck in the corner, senior captain Tyler Nanne was hit by Michigan's Jack Becker. Becker hit Nanne it the back of the head with his outstretched elbow, warranting an ejection and a five minute major penalty. With the advantage, the Gophers came through, tying the game behind a Robbie Stucker slapshot from the point that was tipped in by Brannon McManus.
Play continued into overtime without a goal, resulting in a tie. However, the teams still had much to play for with an extra Big Ten point hanging in the balance. After a scoreless three-on-three period, Michigan claimed the extra point in the shootout.
The result ensured the Big Ten title would not return to Minneapolis, instead heading East to Penn State.
Gophers fall on senior night
Simply put, Minnesota's senior night ended in disappointment.
The team had high expectations for themselves after a strong back half of the season, but their inexperience showed in the 2-1 loss. The team finished tied for second in the Big Ten, but received the No. 4 seed because of tiebreakers.
The night began with a short ceremony to honor the senior class, and while the night was special for them, senior defenseman Ryan Zuhlsdorf said they couldn't treat it any different.
"It's senior night, the last regular-season weekend, but besides that everyone else is out here playing," he said.
Heading into the third period tied, Michigan scored early on and the Gophers couldn't score again despite sustained zone pressure made possible. Minnesota came close to tying it several times, highlighted by a slap shot from Jaxon Nelson that rang off the post.
Minnesota had two power-play chances in the second period but neither one gave the Gophers a goal they desperately needed. Michigan scored the first goal again, but sophomore Nathan Burke, who is returning to form after a difficult season, scored shortly afterward to tie the game 1-1. Burke's improvement was one of the few positives of the night, and head coach Bob Motzko said it was a welcome sight.
"He was in hockey hell for months and then he worked himself through it, the last three weeks, four weeks. He’s back to the Burke we saw last year, and it comes at a great time because we’re going to need him. He’s a good hockey player and we’ve been waiting for him." Motzko said.
Minnesota will need better production from every part of the team as they hope to make a run in the Big Ten tournament and lock up a spot in the NCAA Tournament.