The Gophers were close to revenge, but blew a 3-2 lead in the third period en route to defeat
MINNEAPOLIS — For three minutes and 33 seconds, Rhett Pitlick came close to being the unlikely hero for the University of Minnesota Gophers hockey team in the rematch of last year’s Big Ten Championship game against the Michigan Wolverines at the 3M Arena in Mariucci.
The Montreal Canadiens draft pick and Chaska High School product had scored just one goal in his last 15 games since the new calendar year and could not be expected to be among the favorites to help the Gophers extend their lead in to win back the first period they gambled away.
Not only did Pitlick score the go-ahead that gave the Gophers a 3-2 lead by 18:03 in the third period, but he also scored what was arguably Minnesota’s best goal of the season. Fed back to the defensive zone by Bryce Brodzinski, the 22-year-old charged up the ice and went back and forth against Michigan defenseman Steven Holtz. The subtle stick movements sent Holtz down and Pitlick capitalized, hitting a high blocker on Michigan goaltender Erik Portillo.
“I think obviously they’re talented players and those moments are cool,” Gophers senior defenseman Jackson LaCombe, returning from injury, said of the goals, “(but) it’s just as a team, we just kind of have to clean up.” in some areas…”
However, Pitlick’s highlight reel goal wasn’t enough for the Gophers to take revenge on the Wolverines in their 4-3 loss, the same result on the same stage a year ago.
“It hurts,” said Gophers captain Brock Faber, “but at the end of the day we’re looking for a bigger trophy and that’s not going to happen unless we learn that lesson pretty quickly here.”
The Gophers took a 1-0 lead at the 13:08 mark of the first period when Logan Cooley and Brody Lamb jointly blocked a left circle shot. The duo made a partial 2v1 onslaught, and Lamb found the back of the net after receiving a feed from Cooley. It was only the second shot that Portillo faced.
The Gophers failed to convert their power play opportunity at 4:31 in the first period, but still went into the first break with a 1-0 lead.
But the Wolverines, who looked disorganized at first, quickly stole momentum after about three minutes in the center frame. Rutger McGroarty of the Winnipeg Jets scored twice, just 34 seconds apart. The first marker for the second half came from the low slot after Cal Thomas turned the puck into the corner and uncovered Gavin Brindley, who hit home assist on goal, from behind the net. The second came after an accidental rebound off the boards that landed on McGroarty’s racquet on the side of the net.
“We missed a few (defensive) tasks,” said Motzko. … “Our whole game plan was to limit our mistakes – and unfortunately we didn’t do it.”
Minnesota nearly got a 3-2 lead with 8:47 in the second thanks to a one-man effort by Matthew Knies, who caught the puck mid-air in the neutral zone and several Wolverines en route to a 1-on-1 chance dodged with Portillo in front. Although the Gophers regained the lead when Pitlick scored, their chances of winning the Big Ten championship increased as the game played out.
But less than four minutes later, the Wolverines stopped the momentum and responded – again. Seamus Casey’s shot from the top of the offensive zone went past Justen Close, who appeared to be on the line. The Gophers challenged an offside – in a close one – but it was ruled offside.
“It looks like they got the call right,” Motzko said.
Then Michigan’s Dylan Duke slid the puck past Close from the blue color, with Faber covering it for the eventual game winner at 8:14 on the clock.
Minnesota ran out of late-game magic in the tank with an extra attacker like they’ve executed several times this season. Overall, Michigan had a 32-25 shot advantage and 61-50 favor in shot attempts.
Now they are focused on the NCAA tournament.
“That will help us,” said Motzko. “Not the loss; Losing hurts… (but) playing an intense game.