No. 9 Minnesota has found itself in a hotly contested mid-season battle for Big Ten supremacy, joined in the top 10 by No. 4 Penn State and No. 10 Ohio State, as well as a young Wisconsin squad looking to make a run.
The Gophers flexed their muscle Saturday night against conference foe Michigan, using a 4-2 victory anchored by sophomore netminder Eric Schierhorn to secure a home sweep.
Schierhorn, a 20-game winner during the 2015-2016 campaign, is off to hot second-half start, boasting a 6-0 record while allowing two or fewer goals in each start.
“Michigan is a transition team, they capitalize on rushes,” said Ryan Collins, who had a goal and two assists for the Gophers (13-5-2, 5-1 Big Ten). “We really wanted to focus on keeping them to two goals or less.”
While his defense minimized quality opportunities and shots on goal for Michigan, Schierhorn answered the bell when called upon early and often.
Defenseman Ryan Lindgren turned the puck over in the first period to Wolverine Joe Cecconi, who walked in on Schierhorn before posting a well-placed shot into the goalie’s glove.
“Our mindset every series is to limit our opponent to two goals or less,” said Vinni Lettieri, who scored Minnesota’s other three goals. “We’ll still take our chances and trust in our offensive ability.”
Schierhorn experienced the proverbial “sophomore slump” early in the season, as he allowed five or more goals on four occasions against the potent offensive units of St.Cloud State, North Dakota, Northeastern and Ohio State. Despite his early struggles, Schierhorn has the vote of confidence from coach Don Lucia, starting and appearing in all but one game in his first two seasons.
“We have veteran defensemen who are in sync with their pairs,” said Lucia. “Obviously, a big part of that is the way Eric has been playing.”
Schierhorn point-blank robbed Michigan’s James Sanchez late in the second period, sparking a momentum swing and last-minute goal from Collins.
Lettieri started the scoring with a power-play tally with less than three seconds remaining in the first period and added a goal on a penalty shot in the third period after being dragged down by Michigan captain Alex Kile during a Wolverines power play.
“I tried to focus on my breathing,” said Lettieri. “I saw an opening.”
Lettieri secured hat trick and his 11th goal of the season with an empty-net goal to ice the game.
Michigan sophomore Brendan Warren had a penalty shot opportunity of his own in the third period, but he was challenged by Schierhorn and sailed the shot high.
Michigan threatened late, receiving goals from Steven Merl and Evan Allen, but Schierhorn and the Gophers, with some help from the posts, held on to the victory.
“I thought Michigan played well,” said Lucia. “We had a lot less space in their zone compared to last night.”
The sweep drops Michigan to 8-11-1 and 1-5 in the Big Ten. The Wolverines have struggled to find rhythm after early offseason departures by top NHL prospects Kyle Connor, Zach Werenski, JT Compher and Tyler Motte. Michigan will face rival Michigan State next weekend.
Big Ten roundup
At No. 10 Ohio State 2, Arizona State 2: Kevin Miller and Mason Jobst scored for the Buckeyes, while Tyler Busch and Wade Murphy each had a goal and an assist for the Sun Devils at Columbus, Ohio.
No. 4 Penn State 5, Michigan State 3: The Nittany Lions completed a sweep of the Spartans at State College, Penn. Chase Berger scored twice for Penn State, while Ed Minney made 46 saves in the loss for Michigan State.