Michigan hockey stymies Minnesota to win Big Ten tournament title

By Steve Kornacki
Special to The Detroit News

Michigan used a complete game — stifling defense, clutch saves by tournament Most Outstanding Player Erik Portillo and rapid-fire scoring — to beat Minnesota on Saturday night, 4-3, to claim the Big Ten tournament championship in Minneapolis.

The Wolverines dominated all but the first and last minute of the game, with the Golden Gophers scoring first and then twice in the final minute.

Michigan celebrates its Big Ten Tournament hockey title Saturday night, defeating Minnesota, 4-3.

Portillo and Michigan captain Nick Blankenburg (Romeo High) were handed the large silver cup trophy and skated around with it before being swarmed by teammates for a group photo. Everyone was holding up a ring finger to show that they are No. 1.

Wolverines coach Mel Pearson and his players discussed Tuesday night the importance of hanging another banner in Yost Ice Arena, and will be doing just that with their first conference tourney title since 2016.

“It’s huge to put something up to the roof for the whole group,” said Portllo.

Michigan’s “First-Round Line” scored the team’s first and fourth goals with right wing Brendan Brisson (18th goal of the season) and left wing Kent Johnson (eighth) beating goalie Justen Close. They are centered by Matty Beniers on a lethal line featuring three NHL Draft first-rounders who also played in the Olympics last month.

Mackie Samoskevich (10th) and Dylan Duke (ninth) scored on a very potent line centered by Johnny Beecher. Want to know how talented these Wolverines (28-9-1) are? Everyone on that fourth line was a first-rounder, too, except for Duke — a fourth-round pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Wolverines scored on three of their first 11 shots against Close, who entered the game with a 1.74 goals-against average and .933 save percentage.

They took the largest crowd ever at 3M Arena at Mariucci (10,744) out of the game by answering Minnesota’s goal by Jaxon Nelson just 32 seconds into the game with four straight goals. Nelson, with 13 minutes remaining, was ejected from the game for a five-minute boarding misconduct penalty for rattling Wolverine forward Michael Pastujov’s head off the top of the boards.

Michigan didn’t score with that five-minute one-man advantage, but played with discipline and according to the game plan.

Pearson, when asked this week about the key to playing on the longer, wider Olympic-sized rink, said, “Get to the net. Get to the net. You still have to get to the net, and beat your guy because the big sheet is like Lake Superior. I mean, it is like an ocean out there, a huge lake.

“But we’ve had success there. … It suits our game. We just have to be sure we use our speed and play on the right side of the puck.”

And that they did.

Brisson was stationed in front of Close to bang one home after a nifty back-hand pass from Beniers, with Luke Hughes also getting an assist. Beniers and Hughes are finalists for the Hobey Baker Award.

That tied it at 1-all only 45 seconds after the Golden Gophers (24-12) had taken the lead.

“That goal was so big,” said Pearson, adding that it began quieting the crowd after a raucous start. “To win this game in a tough building says a lot about their character.”

Samoskevich, with 2:09 remaining in the opening period, got credit for the go-ahead goal after Minnesota defenseman Mike Koster deflected his centering pass for Duke off his skate and into the net.

Duke scored at 17:54 of the second period to make it 3-1. Samoskevich drove from the left and back-handed a pass to Duke, who back-handed it into the right side of the net.

Johnson’s goal, at 12:34 of that period, was the prettiest score of the night. Brisson fed him a perfect pass as Johnson cruised in from the right for a top-shelf one-timer.

Michigan’s defense totally neutralized Big Ten Player of the Year Ben Meyers, who led the Gophers with 16 goals and 36 points but was limited to two shots in the game.

Minnesota scored twice in the final minute of play with Matthew Knies getting both goals. He scored with 57.7 seconds left to play while on a 6-on-3 advantage. The Wolverines had two in the penalty box and Close had been pulled. Knies tallied again on a power play with 5.8 seconds left, but Michigan killed off the remaining seconds without another shot.

Hughes, Samoskevich, Brisson and Beniers joined Portillo on the all-tournament team.

“We came here to win,” said Duke, “and got the job done.”

NCAA Tournament berth

The Wolverines will learn their NCAA Regional assignment at 6:30 p.m. Sunday on ESPNU’s NCAA Selection Show. Michigan, rated No. 2 behind Minnesota State in the national PairWise Rankings used by the NCAA in determining seeding and at-large berths, is virtually assured of being a No. 1 seed at one of four sites for the 16-team tourney.  

Steve Kornacki is a freelance writer.