The last time Minnesota and Michigan faced off, a trip to the NCAA title game was on the line. Sunday’s contest might not have carried the same gravity, but on the ice it was hard to tell.
In an up-tempo affair at Mariucci Arena, Michigan’s red-hot special teams provided all the offense the Wolverines needed for a 3-1 win in the final game of the College Hockey Showcase, a rematch of last season’s national semifinal.
“No question, it’s the biggest win of the year, because it was our strongest opponent in a great environment,” said Michigan head coach Red Berenson. “We respect the team that won the championship last year, but we don’t hold any grudge that they beat us [to get there].”
“They out-executed us on special teams,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia, “and that was the difference.”
It wasn’t much of a difference, as a bounce here or there might have changed the outcome.
“Let’s face it, it was anybody’s game,” said Berenson.
The Wolverines (11-2-1, 6-1-1 CCHA) scored a power-play goal for the sixth straight contest, and got the winner on a shorthanded breakaway by Dwight Helminen, who scooped up a loose puck and went in untouched for the score at 6:31 of the second period. Helminen’s goal reversed increasing momentum for Minnesota (7-4-4, 4-2-2 WCHA), which had just tied the game at 1.
“That was huge,” said Berenson. “They had us hemmed in for the whole penalty, and then Helminen [scores].”
Meanwhile, Wolverine netminder Al Montoya made a career-high 38 saves in a sterling performance.
“I thought Montoya was outstanding,” said Lucia. “For some reason, Michigan just grabs one goalie and rides him for four years, and then the next one comes along.”
“All I wanted [this season] was to play on a regular basis, to play consistent,” said Montoya, who has done that and then some so far.
The decision gave Michigan, the winningest team in the history of the College Hockey Showcase, a sweep of its Showcase games after a 4-1 win over Wisconsin Friday.
“It’s one of the better ones,” said Berenson when asked to compare this Showcase to past efforts by Michigan. “It’s a measuring stick for our team.”
Michigan got the game’s first goal early on. A boarding call against Matt Koalska put Michigan up a man at 5:30, and just over a minute later, rookie blueliner Danny Richmond made the Gophers pay, one-timing a pass from Andrew Ebbett past Travis Weber (30 saves) for his second goal of the season.
Two minutes later, Minnesota came an eyelash from knotting it up, but Jon Waibel’s scoop from the edge of the crease hit the post. Similarly, the Wolverines’ bid for a two-goal lead was foiled by Weber with a nifty glove save on Brandon Kaleniecki, skating four-on-four.
The second period was almost all Minnesota, but the scoreboard didn’t reflect that fact.
Early in the frame Montoya kept the Gophers off the board one more time, stopping Tyler Hirsch’s short-range backhander before freshman Thomas Vanek sparked Minnesota.
Vanek stole the puck from Mike Roemensky in the Michigan zone and put a wraparound on Montoya from the stick-side. The puck slid through the crease to a charging Keith Ballard, who made no mistake with the half-open net. Ballard’s third of the year made it 1-1 at 3:39.
A hook on Brandon Rogers put Minnesota on the power play moments later, but the nation’s top penalty kill turned defense into offense. After Roemensky partially cleared the puck off the boards, Helminen beat Ballard to it at the point and went in for the Wolverines’ sixth shorthanded goal — Helminen’s third — of the season.
“If I poke it by him, we’ve got a five-on-three in the zone,” said Ballard of the game’s turning point.
Two more Wolverine penalties, both for interference, gave Minnesota nearly four minutes of offense, but no further scoring as Montoya and the Michigan kill continued to frustrate the Gopher shooters. The Minnesota power play went 0-for-4, Michigan’s seventh consecutive game without allowing a power-play goal.
Early in the third, Weber kept the Michigan lead to one, casting aside Nick Martens’ wrister after the sophomore stepped through the defense for a one-on-one from the slot.
Then it was Montoya’s turn to weather the storm, and the freshman was up to the task, stopping Jake Fleming on a scramble in front to preserve the Wolverine advantage with five minutes left.
Minnesota pulled Weber with a minute to go, but Welch inadvertently provided Michigan its insurance goal when his pass from behind the net went the length of the ice and into the empty net. The goal was credited to Rogers, the last Wolverine to touch the puck, at 19:10.
Despite the loss, Minnesota tied an all-time school record for longest stretch without consecutive defeats, at 59 games.
Next weekend, Michigan travels to Northern Michigan for a pair in CCHA play, while Minnesota returns to WCHA action by visiting Wisconsin.