Gophers storm into Big Ten title game, rallying past Spartans after a long layoff
It had been two weeks since they had played a game, but after a bit of a slow start, the Minnesota Gophers found their legs and found their way back to the conference tourney title game.
MINNEAPOLIS – While their opponents were facing a “win-or-go-home” scenario with their season on the line, the Minnesota Gophers decided “win and stay home” was a better idea.
Trailing early after a two-week layoff, the Gophers got their legs and their offense cranking to blast past Michigan State 5-1 in the semifinal round of the Big Ten tournament, and return to the conference title game.
"We saw the rust. We saw it early ... But a lot of good things in there, and we've got to build off this," Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. "We've got to build on it quick."
The Gophers, who won the regular season title, will face Michigan for the Big Ten tournament crown on Saturday, March 18 at 7 p.m. CT.
As the snow fell outside, the Spartans took an early lead only to see Minnesota (26-8-1) storm back on goals by Jaxon Nelson, John Mittelstad Aaron Huglen and a pair by Logan Cooley, coupled with a 29-save night from goaltender Justen Close.
They will play for the conference tournament title for the third consecutive year, having beaten Wisconsin in 2021. Next week’s title game will be a rematch of the 2022 contest, won by Michigan.
Michigan State (18-18-2) got an early goal from Jeremy Davidson, but saw their advantage slip away, despite out-shooting Minnesota for much of the night. MSU goalie Dylan St. Cyr had 19 saves.
"I thought we played hungry, I thought we played hard. I thought we got to the inside. I thought the goalie made some great saves," said Spartans coach Adam Nightingale. "It's tough, trying to win a playoff game. We executed on the power play, so there were a lot of good moments."
While the Gophers did not exactly look sleepy at the start, the fact that they had gone two weeks without a game meant the Spartans’ legs were fresher and an early penalty by Logan Cooley opened the door for the visitors. Davidson got MSU on the board first, scoring his 10th goal with a high shot after a cross-ice pass from Miroslav Mucha.
But if the Gophers needed a few minutes to find their legs, the style of play that spurred their second consecutive conference title came around by the midway point of the period. On their first power play, Nelson needed to do little more than tap the puck into a yawning net after Matthew Knies set him up perfectly.
Before the period was done, the home team took the lead on a Mittelstadt redirect after a feed from defenseman Ryan Chesley, who was back in the lineup after missing the team’s previous four games with a hand injury.
"They had a good play there on the power play, but we had a good response, and then a great tip by Johnny to get us in front," said Minnesota defenseman Mike Koster, who had a pair of assists.
Huglen gave the Gophers a little cushion early in the second period, popping in the rebound after St. Cyr had stopped an initial shot by Cal Thomas.
The bank is open late 🤑— Minnesota Men’s Hockey (@GopherHockey) March 12, 2023
Cooley's 49th point of the year! pic.twitter.com/46AczXbSSW
And then, acting on the theory that the best players make their own luck, the Gophers got a fortunate bounce when Cooley’s long shot went wide of the net, hit the glass behind the Spartans net, and rebounded off St. Cyr’s back and into the net, giving the Gophers a three-goal lead.
Cooley added an empty net goal with 4:01 to play to finish it.
"It never feels like a tournament until you win a game," Motzko said. "Now it just feels like we're in it. When you're sitting on the sidelines you don't even know you're in a tournament. We get to watch Michigan win before our game and there's an awful lot of excitement. we can feel that."
Michigan State was the only team in the conference without a win or a tie versus the Gophers this season. Minnesota won the season series 5-0-0.
Numbers may be Spartans biggest foe
After winning their first two Big Ten playoff games last weekend at Notre Dame, the Spartans chances of their first NCAA tournament trip since 2012 took a hit. They entered the contest ranked 16th in the PairWise, meaning their season is likely over as a result of the loss, unless they get a lot of help.
Nightingale said the coaches will take a hard look at the PairWise numbers and decide whether they will practice this week, in hopes of an invite a week from now.
"I don't know for sure where we are but we'll look at it and obviously if there's a chance we will (practice)," Nightingale said after the loss at Minnesota. "I think these guys guys want to keep playing hockey and I'd love for the opportunity for these guys to play again, but it's out of our control."
Whether or not they get in, most Big Ten watchers rave about the strides made by the Spartans in Nightingale's first season running the program for his alma mater.
"The job Adam Nightingale and his staff did, really restoring a proud program. Those kids were playing this year," Motzko said. "We were a little but of a tough nut for them to crack, but they were four points out of second place and they play. It was a great job by their coaching staff."
Cooley learning to keep his cool
As one of the more dynamic players in college hockey, Cooley is used to being the center of attention for defenders who shadow him, body him and generally try to knock him off his highlight reel game.
Early in his freshman year, Cooley took some time getting used to the pace of college hockey and took a few major penalties out of frustration. On Saturday he got the same amount of attention from the Spartans, and expressed his displeasure to the referee after one hit, but kept his cool after an early penalty.
"It continues to grow with him. The old saying, 'I'd rather put a fire out than start one,' well, with him we've got to put it out once and a while," Motzko said. "But that is the great thing about him and so many of our players. They've got a high compete level."
On the other side of the Big Ten tournament bracket, second seed Michigan did what it does best, namely score lots of goals, beating third seed Ohio State 7-3 on Saturday night at Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor.
Despite the loss, the Buckeyes are in good shape in the PairWise and can expect a NCAA tournament invite when the 16-team field is announced on Sunday, March 19. It will be Ohio State’s first trip to the tournament since 2019.
The Gophers got some good news on the illness and injury front, Chesley and forward Garrett Pinoniemi both returned to the lineup. And Gophers captain Brock Faber played after being isolated from the team all of last week while fighting a flu bug. Defenseman Jackson LaCombe, who is recovering from a lower body injury, practiced last week but did not play versus the Spartans.
According to Motzko, Faber lost 14 pounds during the week due to the illness, but returned to practice Friday and looked no worse for the wear in the game.
"He really got it bad, and you would not have known. That just shows you what a competitor he is," Motzko said. "That's Fabes."
Minnesota 5, Michigan State 1
Michigan State 1-0-0—1
First period — 1. MS, Jeremy Davidson 10 (Miroslav Mucha, Nash Nienhuis), 4:47, (PP). 2. MN, Jaxon Nelson 8 (Matthew Knies, Mike Koster), 13:39, (PP). 3. MN, John Mittelstadt 3 (Ryan Chesley, Ryan Johnson), 17:51. Penalties — Logan Cooley, MN (elbowing), 3:08; Viktor Hurtig, MS (tripping), 12:25.
Second period — 4. MN, Aaron Huglen 6 (Cal Thomas, Rhett Pitlick), 2:00. Penalties — Bryce Brodzinski, MN (tripping), 17:46.
Third period — 5. MN, Cooley 17 (Brock Faber, Koster), 8:24. 6. MN, Cooley 18 (Jimmy Snuggerud, Chesley), 15:59, (EN). Penalties — Tanner Kelly, MS (hooking), 5:26; Davison, MS (slashing), 17:00; Connor Kurth, MN (hooking), 17:09; Davidson, MS (slashing), 19:17; Koster, MN (cross checking), 19:17.
Shots on goal — MN 9-9-6—24; MS 12-11-7—30. Goalies — Justen Close, MN (30 shots-29 saves); Dylan St. Cyr, MS (24-19). Power plays — MN 1-of-3, MS 1-of-3. Referees — Andrew Bruggeman, Jonathan Sitarski. Linesmen — Samuel Shikowsky, Nicholas Bradshaw. Att. — 9,029.