SOUTH BEND, Ind. — There had been plenty of talk about how different playoff hockey can be leading up to the a Gophers’ trip to Notre Dame for the Big Ten tournament. Then they got on the ice and proved it.
After not going past 60 minutes in any of their 26 regular-season games, the Gophers needed overtime for the second consecutive day, and once again one of their stars played the hero.
On Monday it was Sammy Walker’s turn in the spotlight, as the Gophers’ captain scored off the rebound of a Ben Brinkman shot in the extra period, lifting Minnesota to a 3-2 come-from-behind win over Michigan and a trip to the conference title game.
The Gophers will face Wisconsin for the Big Ten playoff crown at 7 p.m. CT on Tuesday night.
For the first time this season, the Gophers rallied to win after trailing by two goals or more, after the Wolverines took a 2-0 lead into the third period. An unexpected source of offense — junior forward Nathan Burke — and one of the usual suspects — junior forward Sampo Ranta — got the game to overtime, where Walker finished it.
“Give our guys a lot of credit. They stuck with it being down by two and had a terrific third period to get back in it,” said Gophers coach Bob Motzko. “Sammy Walker, your best players have got to come through in big games and I thought he was outstanding tonight.”
As both teams have come to expect, the goaltending in both nets was exemplary, with Jack LaFontaine stopping 35 pucks for the Gophers (22-6-0) and Strauss Mann turning aside 37 shots for Michigan (15-10-1). Although Mann surrendered 5-hole goals to Burke and Ranta that were uncharacteristic.
After killing two penalties in the second, the Gophers had a mixup and gave up a 4-on-2 break by the Wolverines, that ended with LaFontaine getting some — not all — of a Garrett Van Wyhe shot for a 2-0 Michigan lead. It was the first even-strength goal that LaFontaine had given up in more than 220 minutes of hockey inside Compton Family Ice Arena this season.
The Gophers needed a miracle. And not far from Notre Dame’s famed Grotto, where prayers are said daily, there were a few prayers answered inside the hockey rink. After a pass from Jack Perbix, Burke started the rally by slipping a shot between Mann’s knees to give the Gophers some life barely four minutes into the third. It was just his fourth goal of the season, and delighted his parents, who were in attendance, having flown in from Arizona for the tournament.
“Perbix has been great for us recently, driving wide and setting guys up, so I saw him going wide and thought I’d put it in drive and he hit me perfectly,” Burke said. “I’ll be honest, I wasn’t going 5-hole. I just tried to throw it on net and luckily it went in.”
After Ranta tied it, Walker was at the side of the net in overtime when a Brinkman shot from the high slot rebounded off Mann and right to the Gophers’ captain at the side of the net. Walker said it was one of his easier goals this season, with the Wolverines goalie down.
The Gophers got an emotional lift before the game started, when defenseman Brock Faber returned to the lineup. He was injured in the second period of Sunday’s win over Michigan State and wasn’t expected to play on Monday, then did.
“We couldn’t have kept him out of the lineup,” Motzko said of Faber’s determination to play. “It’s the craziest thing, when you go through sports, how certain athletes can battle through some things. He woke up this morning and he was playing, and he gutted through. That is one tough customer, and one special athlete we’ve got on our team right there.”
The win sets up the fifth meeting of the year with arch-rival Wisconsin, which beat the Gophers three times in the regular season and edged them out for the Big Ten title. Walker said despite having to play three games in three nights, the Gophers will be ready.
“It’s always fun playing them. I’ve got a couple buddies on that team, and especially with the tough losses the last time we played them, we’re excited to get back out there,” Walker said. “The legs aren’t 100 percent right now, but we’re going for a championship here. Everyone is up for it and it’s going to be a fun opportunity.”
Michigan is a near-lock for the NCAA tournament and will await the selection show on Sunday.
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