With both teams assured of a spot in next week’s NCAA tournament field, there was little more than momentum and a banner up for grabs in Saturday’s Big Ten tournament title game. But Minnesota and Michigan played it like a possible preview of the national championship game.
In the end, the Wolverines took advantage of enough lapses by the Gophers, and used their powerful offense to repeat as tournament champions with a 4-3 win.
Trailing 3-2 in the third, the Wolverines got late goals from Seamus Casey and Dylan Duke to take the lead and quiet Minnesota’s raucous sellout crowd.
Erik Portillo had 22 saves for Michigan (24-11-3) which will return to the NCAA tournament with designs on a second consecutive trip to the Frozen Four.
Minnesota (26-9-1) got a goal and an assist from Logan Cooley, and a highlight reel score by Rhett Pitlick, but fell short in their final home game. Justen Close had 28 saves for the Gophers, who will head to the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed.
Michigan got two goals from Rutger McGroarty just 34 seconds apart in the middle period after trailing following the opening 20 minutes.
Rhett Pitlick, who previously had just one goal in the second half of the season, took a pass from Bryce Brodzinski early in the third period and made a brilliant rush from the far blue line, tying up Michigan defender Steven Holtz with a few deft stick moves, then snapping the puck past Portillo to give the Gophers a 3-2 lead.
But Casey’s seeing-eye shot from the blue line forged a tie for the Wolverines on a play Minnesota challenged for offside. After a review, the goal stood.
Duke went hard to the net to get the go-ahead goal, and Michigan survived a late push by the Gophers to hang on.
The Gophers were fully healthy on defense for the first time in more than a month with Jackson LaCombe’s return to the lineup. Since a loss at Wisconsin on Feb. 11, Minnesota’s back end had been missing LaCombe, captain Brock Faber and freshman Ryan Chesley at various times due to different injuries. LaCombe, who suffered a non-contact injury in practice late last month, had missed the team’s previous three games.
Portillo, a big-bodied goaltender who is renowned for knocking the net off the moorings during games at Minnesota, got an earful of boos from the Gophers student section during Michigan’s first penalty kill of the game when he pushed off the post and the net was dislodged. It happened again with less than three minutes to play and the Gophers pressing to tie.