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The Big Ten has seven teams that play men's hockey, and that odd alignment can make for an awkward situation come conference tournament time. The regular-season champion receives a bye into the semifinals, while the remaining six teams play best-of-three first-round series.

Having his team sit for a week during playoff season isn't optimal in Gophers coach Bob Motzko's opinion. He'd rather have his players staying sharp during games. "These two weeks have felt like a month," Motzko said in the leadup to the game.

Like it or not, that was the situation they faced on Saturday night at 3M Arena at Mariucci. And after a sluggish 10 minutes to open the Big Ten semifinal against Michigan State, the top-ranked Gophers found their game late in the first period and pulled away to a 5-1 victory over the Spartans.

Logan Cooley scored two goals, and Jaxon Nelson, John Mittelstadt and Aaron Huglen had one each for the Gophers, who got 29 saves from Justen Close. Minnesota (26-8-1) will be host to second-seeded Michigan at 7 p.m. on Saturday in the Big Ten championship game. The Wolverines beat Ohio State 7-3 in the other semifinal and will try to repeat as conference tournament champs. Michigan beat the Gophers 4-3 in last year's final.

"When we watch this game back, we're going to see a lot of good things in there," Motzko said. "We saw the rust, and we saw it early. We saw it in the conditioning. When you're off, it's just hard to duplicate it."

The Gophers remained No. 1 in the PairWise computer ratings.

Needing to win to extend its season, Michigan State (18-18-2) took a 1-0 lead at 4:47 of the first period on a power play. Jeremy Davidson beat Close back-door.

The Gophers, who outscored the Spartans 25-6 in four regular-season wins, were outshot 10-3 in the game's first 10 minutes. That would change.

Minnesota got its first power play at 12:25 and cashed in with Nelson's goal to tie it 1-1 at 13:39. Camped in front of the net, Nelson took a pass from Matthew Knies and slammed the puck into an open net as goalie Dylan St. Cyr guarded the left side.

"We got our engine started there," Motzko said. "We had three or four plays where we started using our speed."

The goal energized the crowd of 9,029 and the Gophers, who pressured relentlessly and took a 2-1 lead when center Mittelstadt, standing in the slot, redirected defenseman Ryan Chesley's shot past St. Cyr at 17:51.

Exactly two minutes into the second period, the Gophers stretched their lead to 3-1 when Huglen tapped in a juicy rebound on a shot by defenseman Cal Thomas.

At 8:24 of the third, the Gophers increased the lead to 4-1 with a bit of good fortune. Cooley's hard shot bounced off the glass, hit St. Cyr on the way down and trickled into the net. Cooley added an empty-net goal with 4:01 to play.

Afterward, Motzko was asked when he'd turn his attention to the Michigan matchup.

"About 20 minutes ago," he said. "We've got some things to work on. … We have to have a sharp week."