ST. PAUL, Minn. — Michigan’s top line of Kyle Connor, JT Compher and Tyler Motte has been a force all year. With a trophy on the line Saturday against Minnesota, that trio carried the load once again for the Wolverines.
Each of Michigan’s first-line forwards had a goal, with Motte’s second of the night — an empty netter with 22.9 seconds remaining — clinching a 5-3 victory for the Wolverines over the Golden Gophers in the Big Ten tournament championship game at Xcel Energy Center.
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On top of that, Michigan’s best players are playing their best hockey at a crucial time of the season.
“Look at our top guys. The CCM line scored four of the five goals tonight,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “There’s a sense of urgency, I think, with our players.”
Connor, the freshman phenom and likely front-runner for the Hobey Baker Award, notched his 35th goal of the season to tie the game at 3-3 just 3:28 into the third period. Connor had previously assisted on first-period power play goals by Motte and Compher that gave Michigan an early 2-0 edge.
Michigan needed that goal to stop the Gophers’ momentum. Minnesota managed to rally to take a 3-2 lead after two periods. Leon Bristedt’s 20th goal of the season put the Gophers on the board. Later in the second, Jake Bischoff tied it at 2-2 when his wraparound found an open net after Michigan goalie Steve Racine got caught out of position.
Gophers captain Justin Kloos sent Minnesota into the locker room with a 3-2 lead after two when his shot from the left faceoff circle beat Racine for a power-play goal.
Minnesota (20-17-0) couldn’t carry that energy for very long into the third, however, and it was Michigan’s big guns once again doing work.
Connor, left all alone near the net, put a move on Minnesota netminder Eric Schierhorn and buried his national-leading 35th goal of the year. Connor had four goals in Friday’s semifinal and was named the Big Ten tournament’s most outstanding player.
“He gets a shot away as quick as anybody I’ve seen, and he is accurate,” Berenson said. “He’s a pure goal scorer.”
While Michigan’s top-line forwards did most of the heavy lifting, it was a defenseman who scored the eventual game winner. Zach Werenski’s wrister with 4:33 remaining proved to be the difference. It was the Wolverines’ third power-play goal of the evening in four opportunities.
Michigan entered Saturday’s game with the nation’s top power play at 30.6 percent. That special teams unit was the difference in the championship game.
“It’s one of the best power plays I’ve had since I’ve been at Michigan,” Berenson said.
If the Wolverines make a run in the postseason, their proficiency on the power play could wind up being a big reason why — just as it was Saturday.
“No one really cares who scores,” Werenski said. “No one’s really selfish about it. Whoever scores, we’re happy for him. I think that’s a big part of our power play.”
The loss for Minnesota effectively ended the Gophers’ season. Though Don Lucia’s team won the Big Ten regular season title, it needed to win the conference tournament to advance to the NCAA tournament.
“That’s what we talk about all the time is we want to try to hang a banner,” Lucia said. “You only get three chances every year to hang one. We were able to get one, but we’re obviously so disappointed to be so close.”