Many happy returns as Gophers blitz Wisconsin to move atop B1G standings
Jaxon Nelson is back from an injury, Ben Meyers is back from the Olympics and the Minnesota Gophers are back on top of the Big Ten with one game left in the regular season after they won their seventh in a row on Friday.
MINNEAPOLIS – The National Anthem was still 20 minutes away, and already the Minnesota Gophers felt the energy.
Then the puck hit the ice, and their largest home audience of the season got to watch the Gophers creep closer to adding another banner to the 3M Arena at Mariucci rafters on Friday night.
Powered by the stirring comeback of Jaxon Nelson, and the return to home ice by Ben Meyers, the Gophers throttled arch-rival Wisconsin 5-0 for their seventh consecutive win.
"Great crowd. We noticed it right away," said Gophers coach Bob Motzko of the announced attendance of 9,350, which included three sections of the rink packed with students. "Maybe a little nerves by us too, because that student section was as big-time as I've ever seen here. Great crowd, great energy, and then we gave them life."
Coupled with Notre Dame’s 4-1 win over Michigan, the Gophers took over the top spot in the Big Ten standings, and can win the conference title outright by beating the Badgers on Saturday night.
"We control our destiny, we just have to worry about how we play the game tomorrow," Motzko said.
Nelson, who had not played since suffering a broken ankle in a Jan. 7 game at Michigan State, returned to the rink in the first period, and to the score sheet in the second, deflecting a Jackson LaCombe shot into the Wisconsin net on a power play to give the Gophers a 2-0 lead in the final minute of the second period. Meyers, who had missed five games while playing in the Olympics, got a hat trick in the third period to emphasize his return to Minnesota.
After a game dominated by good goaltending in both ends of the rink, Justen Close is now 10-3-0 as the Gophers’ starter after a 20-save night and his first collegiate shutout. The Gophers got a goal from Jonny Sorenson on their first shot of the game. Minnesota improved to 22-11-0 overall and 17-6-0 in the conference, which they last won in 2017.
"He played great all night, and I thought he bailed us out in the second period," said Meyers of Close, who stopped a dozen Badgers shots in the middle frame. "He kept the game 1-0 for us, and I just can't say enough good things about the kid. Everybody's happy for him."
The Badgers, who have won just once in their past nine games, got 39 saves from former Gophers goalie Jared Moe, but fell to 9-21-3 overall and 6-16-1 in the conference. Moe played his first two seasons of college hockey for the Gophers, starting, and winning, two games a year ago, but transferred to Wisconsin last spring in search of more playing time.
"They're in first place now and when they're running and they've got a lead, they make you pay for it," Badgers coach Tony Granato said. His team won 8-1 in the Gophers' rink last season on the way to a Big Ten title. "We made them pay for it here last year 8-1. I think they were in a position where they could do that to us tonight and they did."
For Meyers, the three goals gave him six points in the two games he has played since returning from Beijing, where he skated for Team USA in the Winter Olympics. It was his first college hat trick. Meyers said he was wearing orange for Delano (Minn.) High School the last time he scored three in a game.
"Heck of a player. The guy can shoot the puck," Moe said of Meyers, who leads the Gophers with 14 goals. "He's a great player and I've known that since day one when we got here ... We should probably should put a little extra attention on him."
The series concludes on Saturday evening with a 7 p.m. faceoff.
Minnesota 5, Wisconsin 0
First period — 1. MN, Jonny Sorenson 4 (Grant Cruikshank, Mike Koster), 6:08. Penalties — Ryder Donovan, WI (slashing), 6:43.
Second period — 2. MN, Jaxon Nelson 5 (Jackson Nelson, Aaron Huglen), 19:31, (pp). Penalties — Liam Malmquist, WI (tripping), 0:57; Bench (served by Tristan Broz), MN (too many men), 12:21; Huglen, MN (goaltender interference), 15:39; Sam Stange, WI (tripping), 19:24.
Third period — 3. MN, Ben Meyers 12 (Koster), 4:25. 4. MN, Meyers 13 (Mason Nevers, Matthew Knies), 11:41. 5. MN, Meyers 14 (Nevers, LaCombe), 17:19. Penalties — None.
Shots on goal — MN 9-16-19—44; WI 3-12-5—20. Goalies — Justen Close, MN (20 shots-20 saves); Jared Moe, WI (44-39). Power plays — MN 1-of-3, WI 0-of-2. Referees — Kenny Anderson, Sean Fernandez. Linesmen — Nicholas Bradshaw, Sam Shikowsky. Att. — 9,350.