St. Paul, Minn. — After Kyle Connor scored four goals for Michigan against Penn State a week before, the Nittany Lions knew they’d have to find a way to shut down the freshman sensation in order to prolong their season.
The task proved too tall, however, as Connor netted a hat trick in a nine-minute span Friday and added another goal in the third frame. Connor’s four goals propelled the seventh-ranked Wolverines (23-7-5) to a 7-2 win over Penn State in the Big Ten tournament semifinals.
Connor’s play had Penn State in awe.
“I am a firm believer that Kyle Connor is the best player I’ve ever played against, and I even told him that in the handshake line,” Lions forward David Goodwin said. “It’s fun to watch.”
It’s hard to disagree with Goodwin. Just 48 seconds into the second period, Connor, recently named the Big Ten Player and Freshman of the Year, found the puck along the right circle before dangling a Penn State defenseman and shooting the puck over Eamon McAdam’s glove.
Connor sealed McAdam’s fate less than five minutes later. After Penn State (21-13-4) was penalized for a bench minor, the Hobey Baker finalist took the puck from center ice, raced by a defender and rifled the puck behind a stunned McAdam, who was immediately pulled in favor of Matthew Skoff.
Skoff didn’t fare any better. Four minutes after Connor’s second goal, he netted a 2-on-1 opportunity after a Penn State turnover. Junior forward JT Compher took the puck down the right side of the ice and passed it to Connor, who backhanded the puck over Skoff’s left shoulder. Finally, Connor wristed a shot past Skoff’s glove on a power-play opportunity, becoming the first Michigan player to score four goals in a game since Kevin Porter in 2008.
Connor’s quartet of goals upped his season total to 34 — breaking the UM freshman goal-scoring record (30, Denny Felsner, 1988-89). It also grew his nation-leading point total to 65.
“It’s pretty hard to talk about an award right now, but he’s having a Hobey Baker season,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “Let’s put it that way. Brendan (Morrison) had a Hobey Baker career; he was a senior when he went through this and so was Kevin Porter. There’s not many freshmen who could have a Hobey Baker season, but Kyle Connor’s having it.”
Added Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky: “He does everything very quickly. I can’t explain it. I don’t know. I think it’s what you can’t really explain that makes him so darn good.”
Penn State didn’t just struggle containing Connor. After breaking his skate and crawling off the ice on his first shift, forward Max Shuart made the most of his fresh blades, banging home a rebound opportunity to open the game’s scoring at 10:35.
And just as Penn State started to apply some pressure, Nittany Lions forward Chase Berger was sent off for hooking and forward Alex Kile made them pay. Less than 30 seconds into the man advantage, forward Tyler Motte won a puck battle behind the net and passed to Compher, who sent the puck to Kile, who found twine.
Compher, a Michigan captain, notched helpers on five of the Wolverines’ goals — ballooning his season assists total to a nation-leading 44. Connor said after the game he’s never played with a linemate with a feeding ability like Compher’s.
“He’s got one of the best visions of a player I’ve played with,” Connor said.
Michigan played the first semifinal Friday and awaited the winner between top-seeded Minnesota and Ohio State.
“I can see them doing to other teams what they did to us,” said Gadowsky.
Big Ten semifinal
Minnesota 4, Ohio State 2: Taylor Cammarata scored twice and Tyler Sheehy had a goal and added three assists as Minnesota advanced to the Big Ten championship game. Vinni Lettieri also scored for the Gophers (20-16), who had 45 shots on goal. Minnesota goalie Eric Schierhorn made 27 saves. Kevin Miller and David Gust had goals for the Buckeyes (14-18-4).
Wisconsin fired men’s hockey coach Mike Eaves, who led the Badgers to an NCAA title in 2006, but has struggled the past two seasons. program for 14 seasons.
Wisconsin had success under Eaves early in his tenure, but has struggled the past two seasons. The Badgers finished 8-19-8 with a loss to Penn State in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament on Thursday.
Eaves helped Wisconsin win its sixth NCAA title in 2006. The Badgers also reached the NCAA championship game in 2010.
Big Ten tournament
At Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, Minn.
Penn State 5, Wisconsin 2
Ohio State 4, Michigan State 3
Michigan 7, Penn State 2
Minnesota 4, Ohio State 2
Championship, Michigan vs. Minnesota, 8 p.m. (BTN)