Motzko says Gophers 'kept getting better' as team claims first B1G regular season title since 2017
The conference title race was over before the first period ended on Saturday, as the Minnesota Gophers got some help to win the Big Ten for the first time since 2017. Then they took care of their own business in a sweep of Wisconsin.
MINNEAPOLIS – There is no date that one can circle on their calendar to mark the official start of “banner season” – that time between late February and mid April when college hockey teams can win their conference’s regular season title, playoff title, a NCAA regional title and the NCAA Frozen Four.
For the Minnesota Gophers, the 2022 version of banner season began at roughly 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 26. Long before their 8-0 win over arch-rival Wisconsin was finished, the Gophers had already officially won the Big Ten’s regular season crown – the program’s first since 2017 – but they decided to have some fun with an old foe on the ice anyway.
“We were just a consistent hockey team from the start of the year through. We had a lot of things happen to us and nothing phased us,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. “Obviously the big story is the goaltender right now, and he continues to just be an incredible story and he’s just dialed in right now. But we kept getting better all season long.”
Goals by Ben Meyers and Tristan Broz just 21 seconds apart in the first period set the tone as the Gophers battled to their eighth consecutive win. They finish the regular season with a 23-11-0 overall record and an 18-6-0 conference mark. Justen Close had 24 saves for his second consecutive shutout, improving to 11-3-0 as the team’s starting goalie since assuming the role in January when Jack LaFontaine abruptly jumped to the NHL.
Bryce Brodzinski and Sammy Walker both scored shortly after leaving the penalty box later in the game and Mike Koster scored his second goal in the past three games to make it a lopsided affair.
“It’s a fun team. We’ve got a good group and we’re deep and everyone can skate and can play. We’ve just got to keep it going,” Walker said.
The Badgers got 18 saves from starting goalie Cameron Rowe, who was chased from the net in the third period, giving way to seldom-used third-stringer Ben Garrity who finished the game. It was the first time Wisconsin had been blanked on consecutive nights by the Gophers since Feb. 9-10, 1934 when George Clausen recorded back-to-back shutouts.
“There were moments in the game where I felt good about how we were playing, but the score’s 8-0 so obviously it’s hard to walk out of here feeling good about ourselves,” Badgers coach Tony Granato said. “It’s a stinger.”
With the conference title comes a bye weekend as the league’s other six teams play the opening round of the Big Ten playoffs. The Gophers will be at home on Saturday, March 12 for a single-elimination game versus the lowest remaining seed after the first round series are complete. They won the 2021 Big Ten tournament, which was played at Notre Dame in a single-elimination format over three days.
There were a little more than 12 minutes left in the first period when it looked like the Badgers had scored, briefly. Tyler Inamoto launched a shot from the blue line, and Badgers winger Zach Urdahl jumped at the top of the crease to get out of the way. Urdahl came down on top of Close as the puck went in the net. After a lengthy review, it was declared no goal.
“I had a feeling it might not be allowed. It was definitely a physical play there by their guy and it was pretty bang-bang,” Close said. “More than anything we used that little time there to regroup and refresh and refocus because they put some good pressure on us to start the game. We made the most of it.”
At almost the same moment as the Gophers fans were getting that good news, Notre Dame’s 2-1 win over Michigan went final, meaning that Minnesota had clinched the Big Ten regular season title no matter what happened in their game.
With Garrity in the net, the Gophers added three goals late to make it a blowout. It is the fifth regular season title for the Gophers in the nine seasons of Big Ten hockey. The crowd of 10,069 was the largest of the season.
“A little bit of the old feel in the building,” Motzko said, reflecting back to his days as an assistant coach in the early 2000s when sellouts were more common. “Gopher fans are still there. They didn’t go anywhere.”
Minnesota 8, Wisconsin 0
First period — 1. MN, Ben Meyers 15 (Mason Nevers, Jackson LaCombe), 9:04. 2. MN, Tristan Broz 5 (LaCombe, Matt Staudacher), 9:25. Penalties — Jonny Sorenson, MN (hooking), 13:12.
Second period — 3. MN, Bryce Brodzinski 12 (Rhett Pitlick, LaCombe), 14:27, (pp). Penalties — Max Johnson, WI (slashing), 4:43, Roman Ahcan, WI (5-boarding), 12:09; Brodzinski, MN (cross checking), 12:09; Sammy Walker, MN (slashing), 19:08.
Third period — 4. MN, Walker 13 (Blake McLaughlin, Jaxon Nelson), 1:29. 5. MN, Mike Koster 3 (Broz, Aaron Huglen), 12:56. 6. MN, Matthew Knies 10 (Meyers, Brock Faber), 16:55. 7. MN, Pitlick 5 (Hulgen, Broz), 17:20. 8. MN, Grant Cruikshank 7 (Jack Perbix), 18:21. Penalties — Pitlick, MN (holding), 1:57.
Shots on goal — MN 10-9-8—27; WI 12-4-8—24. Goalies — Justen Close, MN (24 shots-24 saves); Cameron Rowe, WI (23-18); Ben Garrity, WI (4-1). Power plays — MN 1-of-2, WI 0-of-4. Referees — Kenny Anderson, Sean Fernandez. Linesmen — Nicholas Bradshaw, Sam Shikowsky. Att. — 10,069.