For as much preparation and planning as the Gophers undertake throughout the men's hockey season, how Friday night's game-winner against Michigan came to be involved remarkably little strategy.
That's because Matthew Knies' power-play goal with 8 seconds left in overtime, giving the Gophers a 4-3 victory, was during an unusual four-on-three advantage. Knies said the last time he could remember being in that situation was two days short of a year ago, when his former linemate Ben Meyers did exactly what he did: score the winner on a power play in overtime against the Wolverines.
How often the Gophers train for such a specific occurrence: "Rarely," per coach Bob Motzko. So the sidebar he called for just after Michigan's Jackson Hallum hooked and toppled Brock Faber as he surged toward the net with 1:37 to play had to be more than just a breather and a pep talk.
"We practice it right there at the timeout," Motzko said. "… You just don't see it too often. But let me make a note, we probably should put a little more emphasis on that because it does come up once in a while."
The quick run-through worked, as the Gophers went on to win in front of an announced crowd of 10,300 at 3M Arena at Mariucci. The victory helped the No. 2 Gophers (18-6-1, 12-2-1) increase their already-commanding lead in the Big Ten Conference to 12 points, with No. 8 Michigan (13-9-1, 5-8) far behind in sixth.
Defenseman Jackson LaCombe, who assisted on Knies' winner, said much of what the Gophers did on their OT power play was a response to Michigan's actions. "Just kind of reading what they're trying to do. I think they're kind of blocking off all of our top guys," he said. "So obviously looking for Kniesy in front is what we're trying to do."
Knies' close-range shot was the opposite of how LaCombe tied the game with about five minutes left to play in the third period. His shot came from near the blue line, as many of his six goals this season have. The senior has always been a offensive defenseman, though Motzko joked he needs to improve his batting average a bit. LaCombe tends to shoot a bit wide but is pretty much unstoppable when he's on target.
"I kind of never know what he's doing. If he's shooting or passing. He kind of fakes me out, too," Knies said of his teammate.
But the Gophers needed to orchestrate a comeback because of some second-period mistakes. Though the Wolverines made a few of those as well.Michigan's Mark Estapa smacked Gophers defenseman Mike Koster in the head with about a minute left in the first period, incurring a five-minute major and game misconduct. Jimmy Snuggerud scored on the ensuing power play, but that lead didn't last long.
Michigan's Erici Ciccolini equalized at the 12-minute mark in the second, with Knies scoring his first goal about four minutes later. But 40 seconds after that, the Wolverines again tied the score from Adam Fantilli after some miscommunication on defense left the net open. And another 15 seconds later, Gavin Brindley gave Michigan its first lead against the Gophers all season after a costly turnover.
Yet despite those miscues and other frustrations — such as called-off goals and hitting the pipes a handful of times — the Gophers didn't capitulate. And it ended up being a thrilling game, with Michigan goaltender Erik Portillo saving 44 of 48 shots and Gophers goalie Justen Close stopping 31 of 34.
"Never lost hope," Knies said. "Everything was in our favor. I think we just needed that bounce."