Top line carries Michigan to Big Ten title

Jason Rubinstein
Special to The Detroit News
Michigan forward Tyler Motte (14) high-fived teammates after scoring a goal against Minnesota during a first-period power play. Michigan won 5-3.

St. Paul, Minn. — Penn State couldn’t handle the CCM line on Friday. Neither could Minnesota on Saturday.

It was the Gophers inability to stymie Michigan’s top-ranked offense — and the line of Kyle Connor, JT Compher and Tyler Motte — that ended their season. And Michigan’s 5-3 win handed the Wolverines their first Big Ten Tournament Championship — ending a five-year drought of not hanging a banner in Yost.

More importantly, No. 7 Michigan’s victory over Minnesota sealed its spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2011-12 season.

BOX SCORE: Michigan 5, Minnesota 3

The game’s peak came when Minnesota (20-17-0) took a penalty with 5:18 remaining in the third period. Just over a minute into the man-advantage, the Wolverines first power play unit — headed by the CCM line — found the net. Compher skated around the net with the puck, fed Zach Werenski at the point, who rifled a shot home.

That was just the end of the line's dominance.

“You think you are controlling the game,” Minnesota captain Justin Kloos said, “and then all the sudden Connor’s got two assists, Compher’s got a goal and Motte’s got a goal. They’re the reason that they’re all considered for the Hobey (Baker Award).”

For the first half of the game, it looked like Michigan (24-7-5)  would cruise to victory. Ten minutes into the first period, Connor, the Big Ten Player and Freshman of the Year, skated the puck down the right circle and found junior Motte, who banged home a rebound opportunity.

Motte’s tally was his 30th of the year, while Connor’s assist boosted his point total to 66 and extended his point streak to 25 games. His 30th goal also had historical implications as Motte and Connor became the first linemates to each register 30-plus goals since Kevin Porter and Chad Kolarik accomplished the feat in 2007-08. Porter won the Hobey Baker Award that season, and Michigan coach Red Berenson said a day earlier that Connor is having a “Hobey Baker type season.”

Connor’s 4 goals power UM to Big Ten title game

And when it started to seem like Minnesota was able to cool off Michigan, the CCM line found another way to beat Big Ten Goalie of the Year, Eric Schierhorn. After the Gophers took their second penalty of the day, Compher found regained his own rebound and shoved the puck behind Schierhorn.

But the momentum reversed right after Michigan’s second goal as Minnesota quickly responded when Vinni Lettieri weaved down the ice behind the net before feeding Leon Bristedt who wristed a shot past netminder Steve Racine.

Racine’s luck wasn’t much better soon after as the senior lost his footing in the crease and couldn’t regain his balance before Jake Bischoff put the puck into the net.

And Minnesota continued its offensive barrage soon after. On their first man-advantage opportunity, the Gophers kept the puck in Michigan’s zone for over a minute, and Justin Kloos capitalized, firing the puck past Racine’s shoulder.

“We had the game where we wanted it,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said.

Added Berenson: “We were on the wrong side of the puck.”

But all Michigan needed to do to change the game’s momentum was to double-shift the feared CCM line early in the third period. This time, Connor, notched his 35th goal of the season, finding the puck all alone at the right circle, dangling Schierhorn and sliding the puck into the net.

“I was just camping out the weak side and (Compher) saw me and made a great pass,” Connor said, “and the goalie came out really hard and I just tried to out-wait him."

Minnesota coach Don Lucia said after the game Connor reminded him of Thomas Vanek, who also scored 30 goals as a freshman for the Gophers.

Minutes later, Motte sealed the game with an empty-net goal.

So just under a year ago, Minnesota ended Michigan’s season, beating them in tournament championship game. However, this year, the tides have reversed, and Minnesota’s season is now spoiled 361 days later.

“Last year we had a chance and they were the better team,” Berenson said.

Added Werenski: “Between the second and third we talked about how we owed them.”

Whatever was said worked and last year’s narrative was reversed.

Michigan has the CCM line to thank.

Jason Rubinstein is a freelance writer.