At the start of the third, all that stood between Minnesota and its second Big Ten playoff championship was 20 minutes and a very talented, very determined Wisconsin team. With just over two minutes to go in regulation, the Golden Gophers were hanging on to a one-goal lead.
“I’ve lived in those games before, when we had big leads and the other team starts their way back,” said coach Bob Motzko. “You know, you keep looking at the clock and it doesn’t move very fast. We just kept saying, ‘Play our game.’”
And that’s what the Gophers did, outlasting the Badgers 6-4 to capture a title they last earned in 2015.
It was sophomore defenseman Jaxon Nelson’s fifth goal of the season at 18:06 in the second period that finally became the game winner as Wisconsin scored three unanswered goals in those final 20 minutes, two coming just 1:26 apart early in the period.
Junior Blake McLaughlin led the Gophers with two goals and two assists, his first marker giving Minnesota a one-goal lead after the first period and his second the empty-netter 19:36 in the third that gave Minnesota the game.
“It’s always fun in big-time games who rises, and we had a whole bunch who rose to the occasion, but Blake took it to a whole other level tonight,” said Motzko. “He was pretty special to watch. Even right at the end, he’d been out there for almost 45 seconds on the pulled goalie and he just looked at me and said, ‘I’m staying out here,’ and he was going to get it done, and then he scores. It was a terrific effort by him, how he rose up to that occasion.”
“I don’t think you ever expect to have a game like that,” said McLaughlin. “I think the puck kind of found me. My whole line was just going.”
Sammy Walker centers the McLaughlin’s line with Scott Reedy on right wing. Reedy had a goal and an assist, and Walker had two helpers.
Big Ten Goaltender of the Year Jack LaFontaine made a season-high 46 saves for the Gophers and was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Eighteen of LaFontaine’s saves came in the third period.
“Their offense is very volatile, very explosive, so I knew what we were getting into,” said LaFontaine. “Obviously, they had a great push. I think we did a great job in responding to those two quick goals before the 10-minute mark.”
The Badgers began their rally at 4:08 in the third, when Mike Vorlicky scored from the right circle. At 5:34, Roman Ahcan scored his second of the night for Wisconsin, and suddenly the Badgers were within two goals of the Gophers.
Minnesota settled down after Motzko called a timeout, but the nation’s leading goal scorer, Cole Caufield, netted his 28th of the season with 2:11 remaining in regulation, making it a 5-4 game.
“We shut him down for about 50 minutes,” said Motzko, “and then he’s going to find his way.”
With a minute remaining, Wisconsin pulled goaltender Robbie Beydoun for the extra attacker but the Gophers managed a clear, leading to McLaughlin’s second goal.
“They wanted the puck more than us,” said Ahcan. “That hasn’t been our team all year. It shows what happens when we don’t compete.”
For the first 40 minutes, the Gophers managed to silence a Wisconsin offense that averages close to four goals a game – and a team that had swept Minnesota in Minneapolis at the start of February, outscoring the Gophers 12-2 in two games. The Badgers were 3-1 against the Golden Gophers during the regular season, holding Minnesota to a single goal in each of those three wins.
Late in the second period of this game, Minnesota surged to take that 5-1 lead on three goals scored within three minutes, the first by Brannon McManus at 15:24, followed by Reedy’s goal at 16:49 and then Nelson’s game-winning goal at 18:06. After Nelson’s goal, Beydoun replaced Wisconsin starter Cameron Rowe in net.
“We were as flat-footed there for that 10 minutes as we’ve been for a long time,” said Wisconsin coach Tony Granato. “They played like it was a championship game.”
To get to this championship game, the Gophers needed two come-from-behind overtime wins, the first a 2-1 win over Michigan State Sunday night and then last night’s 3-2 win over Michigan. Having to play their third game in three nights began to show in the third period as they held on against the Badgers, who as the top seed in the tournament had a first-round bye.
“Couldn’t be more proud of our guys,” said Motzko. “I’m telling you, three games in three nights. They don’t do that in the National Hockey League, you barely do it in college hockey.
“We couldn’t have played any better the entire weekend.”
With the win, Minnesota automatically qualifies for the NCAA tournament, but both the Badgers (20-9-1) and the Golden Gophers (23-6-0) will compete. Asked whether he thinks this game will secure Minnesota a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney, Motzko said he doesn’t care.
“Whatever,” said Motzko. “I learned a long time ago, I don’t care where we go or what seed we are and it’s the truth. Last year I thought we were one of the top 16 teams in the country at the end of the year, but we weren’t going to be in. Our body of work just was a little short. This year, our body of work’s pretty good, so send us where we need to go and we’ll be ready to go.”