Four power plays. Fifty-three shots. Single and double overtime with a shootout to top it off.
Despite these chances, the Minnesota Golden Gophers still didn’t get a victory on Friday night. Instead, the Gophers technically tied with Michigan 2-2, while the Wolverines took the extra conference point in the shootout to deny Minnesota a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament.
“We couldn’t have played any better the next 55 minutes [after a shaky start],” head coach Bob Motzko said. “[Michigan goaltender] Strauss Mann was outstanding tonight. We had plenty of looks, and I liked the way we played. If we play like that, we’re good.”
Right before the puck dropped, it looked like a parting of the seas for Minnesota with a path to the Big Ten regular-season title. If Ohio State swept Wisconsin, the worst team in the conference, it would have been impossible for Minnesota to get there. Instead, the Badgers shocked the Buckeyes on the road to take the possibility of an Ohio State sweep away.
If Minnesota got the job done on Friday, a victory Saturday would have meant an outright Big Ten championship. Although that scenario did not live to see the end of the Gophers’ game Friday, they still have a share of the Big Ten title to play for on Saturday on senior night.
It is also crucial to emerge with at least a point to maintain home-ice advantage for the first round of the conference tournament.
Minnesota had many chances at a victory Friday night but those were largely stopped by Mann. He made 53 saves over 70 minutes of play with an additional two stops in the shootout.
The Gophers really found their legs in the second half of the first period and continued that to lay it on Michigan’s defense in the second period. Down 1-0 going into the middle frame, Minnesota launched 21 shots at Mann, yet none found the back of the net. While Michigan got 10 shots off that period, Minnesota squandered an offensively dominant period that included two breakaway chances for no change in the score.
Once Minnesota got on the board early in the third period, 3M Arena at Mariucci’s crowd erupted after waiting and waiting for one of the plethora of chances to squeak by Mann.
“We had been battling in the offensive zone for awhile,” LaCombe said of the pressure before he scored Minnesota’s first goal. “We were kind of hemming them in, so to finally get one was nice.”
After LaCombe’s goal, Michigan’s Jack Becker took a five-minute major penalty for boarding late in the third period. That gave Minnesota a chance, down 2-1, to even the score and have a chance at making the game’s result a closer reflection of the team’s play.
Enter Brannon McManus. McManus got in front of Mann while defenseman Robbie Stucker had the puck at the point. He wristed the puck through traffic, where McManus got a piece of it to find twine, evening the score at 2-2, where it remained as the final score.
Minnesota is back in action Saturday to solidify its conference tournament seeding, and potentially a share of the Big Ten regular-season title.