Michigan's NCAA hopes received a big boost Saturday at Yost after the Wolverines controlled No. 1 Minnesota in a dominating 6-2 victory. If U-M wins at least one game at next weekend's Big Ten Tournament - and it sees Penn State in game one - it should be in.
"This being a must-win game, everyone in that locker room knew," senior captain Mac Bennett said. "We came out ready to play and it showed. Good for us, I'm proud of the guys in the locker room. We needed to get it done tonight and we did."
There was considerable concern that after Friday's devastating 3-2 overtime loss to Minnesota that the Maize and Blue would come out flat, like a team that, understandably, had had its gut ripped out. But there would be no folding for the Wolverines on this night as they held a 1-0 lead after one and ripped off a 4-1 second period for a 5-1 lead heading into the second intermission.
"I don't think we were really discouraged; Coach came in the locker room and said that team can be beat," Bennett said. "He came in this press conference last night and said if we play like that every night we're not where we are [in the Pairwise Rankings] and he's right. When we're hot, the sky is the limit for this team.
"Tonight we just came out and in the second and third period we were all over them. That's the No. 1 team in the country. If we're playing our game, we can beat anyone."
Junior left winter Alex Guptill struck at 5:16 of the first when his wrist shot from the slot beat Gopher goalie Michael Shibrowski. It was the first of four goals that were good enough to beat an NHL netminder, which is important only because the cynical will say Minnesota, having clinched the Big Ten title Friday, was playing its backup goalie.
A win is a win, though, as the U-M basketball team can attest, and it counts the same towards the overall Pairwise Rankings whether the Maroon and Gold started the first-string or fifth-string goalie.
Besides, the Golden Gophers had plenty of chances themselves in the first period, and each time Michigan rookie Zach Nagelvoort proved up to the task, making 11 saves en route to a 25-stop night.
"They played their backup goalie and maybe they lost a little sense of urgency - they clinched first place last night - but I liked our team," head coach Red Berenson said. "This was a must-win game for us and it was a good team effort."
Senior Luke Moffatt scored 22 seconds into the second period when he swatted a puck caroming off the ends boards out of midair. Moffatt added his second, staking U-M to a 3-0 lead, at 4:50 when he unleashed a torrent shot from the slot for a power-play goal. Moffatt almost scored a natural hat trick but his one-timer at 6:45 off a perfect 2-on-1 feed from Boo Nieves hit the post.
"It was kind of a cool goal -- I was just happy to bat it in," Moffatt said in describing his first marker. "I guess my dad making me all those years play baseball as a child paid off, finally."
Junior Zach Hyman went top shelf with his shot from the right faceoff circle at 13:21 to raise Michigan's lead to 4-0, and junior Phil Di Giuseppe made it 5-0 when his slapshot from the left point trickled through Shibrowski's five-hole at 15:20. It was the first weak goal the Minnesota netminder allowed, but U-M wasn't complaining.
Gopher defenseman Brady Skjei made it 5-1 before the break but the Wolverines responded with sophomore centerman Andrew Copp's shorthanded tally 30 seconds into the third period - his team-leading 15th goal this season - to reestablish Michigan's position.
"It was a huge momentum burst for us," Moffatt said. "We've had trouble finishing teams off and that goal gave us that momentum and let us keep pushing."
Skjei scored again at 2:48, but the Maize and Blue were firmly in control and would not let this one slip away.
The victory, and the overall weekend, was, by far, Michigan's most impressive of the year and provided a glimpse of what this team is capable of. If this team shows up in St. Paul March 20-22, it could win the Big Ten Tournament. At the very least, it should solidify its spot in the NCAA Tournament.
"We proved we're not out of place with these teams," Berenson said. "Everybody is good this time of the year whether you're a first-place team or last-place team, particularly going in the playoffs.
"I think we all learned something in there. We learned how hard you have to play every night. We've been pushing that all year but maybe we were too young or weren't ready but we're ready now. We're playing better hockey than a month ago, and that was our goal."
U-M will meet Penn State in a Big Ten quarterfinal (3:00 p.m.) and would all but lock up its NCAA berth with a win, but the Nittany Lions have been a thorn in Michigan's side, splitting the season's four-game series. If the Wolverines play with the same urgency they did against Minnesota, it should win easily, but that consistency has been the Maize and Blue's greatest challenge this year.
"You never know until it happens, but I think we learned our lesson," Copp said. "You have to step on their throats. I thought you saw us play with that killer mentality tonight we haven't really displayed all year."