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Gophers men's hockey loses to Michigan, comes up short of Big Ten title game

For the third consecutive year, the Gophers will not be the Big Ten hockey tournament champions. And for the third year in a row, Michigan made sure that was the case.

Behind goals by Kienan Draper and Gavin Brindley, 23 saves from goalie Jake Barczewski and a suffocating defensive effort, the Wolverines defeated the Gophers 2-1 on Saturday night in a Big Ten tournament semifinal at 3M Arena at Mariucci. Michigan adds its latest triumph over Minnesota to a pair of 4-3 victories in the 2022 and 2023 Big Ten title games at Mariucci.

The Wolverines (21-13-3) will face regular-season champion Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game on Saturday in East Lansing. The Spartans beat No. 7 seed Ohio State 2-1 in the other semifinal.

The Gophers (22-10-5) must wait until March 24 to find out where they will be playing in the NCAA tournament. They dropped from No. 6 to No. 8 in the PairWise rankings, but they're still a lock to make the 16-team NCAA field as an at-large entrant. The four regionals are in Sioux Falls, S.D.; Maryland Heights, Mo.; Springfield, Mass., and Providence, R.I. The Frozen Four is April 11-13 at Xcel Energy Center.

Gophers goalie Justen Close kept his team in the game, making 29 saves. Jimmy Snuggerud scored Minnesota's only goal, with 1:29 left in the third and Close pulled for an extra attacker. The Gophers pushed for the equalizer but came up short in front of 10,336.

"We gave a goal up and got back on our heels," Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. "We lost a lot of draws tonight, and we didn't establish a hard enough forecheck. We spent too much time having to defend. We didn't have a good look to us tonight."

Throughout the game, Minnesota had trouble generating offense as Michigan pushed the Gophers to the perimeter and had sticks in passing lanes. Minnesota's play was by no means crisp, with several errant passes and puck battles lost. And the Wolverines were dominant in the circle, winning 36 of 56 faceoffs.

The Gophers came out fast, getting three shots on goal in the opening 1:11. Michigan, however, got on the scoreboard first on its second shot of the game when Draper slammed a rebound of a Chase Pletzke shot past Close for a 1-0 lead at 3:12.

Outshot 10-7 in the first period, Michigan turned up the pressure early in the second, putting the Gophers on their heels and forcing Close to make four saves by the 3:37 mark.

Michigan's pressure paid off with the game's first power play when Rhett Pitlick was called for hooking at 4:26. The Wolverines, whose power play operates at a national-best 35.6%, spent the full two minutes in the Minnesota zone. Close made four saves, and defensemen Carl Fish and Sam Rinzel each had a key blocked shot.

Michigan boosted the lead to 2-0 at 18:36 of the second when Brindley, on a rush, beat Close with a shot from the right circle.

"We definitely weren't expecting to be pushed around like that," Gophers center Jimmy Clark said. "We didn't play the game that we can play and that we practiced this week. We've got some things to touch up on, put in the past and get ready for the big tournament."

The Gophers didn't mount sustained pressure until late in the third. After Snuggerud scored, Pitlick had a good look on a shot that whistled wide of the net with 30 seconds to play and Close pulled.

Afterward, Motzko lamented how a good opportunity got away.

"That's a pretty good hockey team we were playing, and they weren't going to give it to us. But we didn't bend our knees enough to create that chance and get our crowd into it," he said. "We left 'em hanging tonight. … We've got to bury this quickly."