ANN ARBOR, Mich. — For a guy who had just scored the game-winning overtime goal to secure his team’s place in Big Ten hockey history, Minnesota junior Kyle Rau was pretty subdued after the fact.
“It’s pretty cool, but when you come here, you don’t come here to win conference championships,” said Rau. “You come here for something else.”
For tonight, at least, the Golden Gophers claimed the first-ever regular-season Big Ten championship, defeating Michigan 3-2 in overtime.
This is the third straight regular-season conference title for Minnesota. In their last season with the WCHA in 2012-13, the Gophers shared the regular-season championship with St. Cloud State and they took the 2011-12 WCHA title outright.
“This year was going to be the first-ever Big Ten title [and] that was our goal when the year began,” said Minnesota coach Don Lucia. “We lost some really good players off of last year’s team, but some returning guys stepped up their level of play and the freshmen complement our team very, very well.”
After scoring the first goal in the contest, the Gophers found themselves having to come from behind when Michigan netted two unanswered to lead 2-1 after the first. Minnesota tied the game late in the second and after a tough back-and-forth third period, the game headed into overtime – something that didn’t bode well for the Gophers, a team that had six ties to its credit, three in Big Ten play with no extra shootout points to show for them.
Minnesota needed just two points to clinch tonight.
“We haven’t been that good at shootouts this year,” said Rau, “and I think we’ve been in six overtime games and haven’t won one and that was brought up this week and so, I’m happy that we scored one.”
When it came down to it, the Gophers took advantage of the best chance they had in OT. Michigan’s Derek DeBlois was called for hooking at 1:55 when Minnesota was already pressing. On the game-winning goal, Travis Boyd secured the puck along the boards near the left circle and centered it to Hudson Fasching, whose shot from the left of the net skittered off goaltender Zach Nagelvoort’s stick – and right to Rau, who backhanded it in from near the right post.
“Fasching got it on the goal line and the puck just popped out right for me,” said Rau. “I knew the goalie was down, so I thought I’d shoot it up high and I got lucky and it went in.”
The game started fast, with scoring chances in each end.
Brady Skjei made it 1-0 for Minnesota at 9:20 in the first on an unassisted shot from the blue line.
The Wolverines responded at 12:36 and 17:02, respectively.
First, Evan Allen evened the score from in front of the crease and crashing in two-on-one while being dragged down in front of the Minnesota net, Andrew Copp took Tyler Motte’s sweet feed from the right circle and surprised Adam Wilcox near the left post for the Michigan’s only lead.
“I thought we just had some nervousness to our game in the first period,” said Lucia. “We weren’t talking. Then the communication was much better as the game went on. Adam made a couple key saves there to keep us in it and our back half of the game was much better.”
At 17:52 of the second, Justin Kloos’ 12th goal of the season tied the game, a shot from the slot that rang off the crossbar.
“Hard-fought,” said Lucia. “Michigan was the better team in the first period. I thought we kind of righted ourselves in the second and then the game turned a little bit back to us, but it was hard fought. Michigan’s a good team, as good as we’ve seen this year. It’s not an easy place to play, but a fun place to play.”
Michigan coach Red Berenson was satisfied with his team’s effort.
“I liked our defense, I liked our goalie, I liked our team,” Berenson said. “Just one of those games. We had a couple of opportune chances and didn’t score and they got a rebound goal in overtime. I liked our team. If we played like that every night, we wouldn’t be sitting where we are. They brought some good hockey out of us and we’ve got to regroup and find it again tomorrow.”
The Golden Gophers (25-4-6, 14-2-3-0 Big Ten) and the Wolverines (17-12-4, 9-8-2-1 Big Ten)
meet again at Yost Ice Arena Saturday at 7 p.m. EST.