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2016 Big Ten Hockey Tournament: Michigan advances to championship game

Kyle Connor scored a natural hat trick in the second period, finishing with four goals for the Wolverines in a 7-2 victory over Penn State.

Michigan freshman Kyle Connor scored four goals Friday to increase his nation-leading total to 34.
Michigan freshman Kyle Connor scored four goals Friday to increase his nation-leading total to 34.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

ST. PAUL- By the time conference tournaments roll around, the hockey cliche is, freshmen are no longer first year players. It is no surprise to see first year players fitting in on a line or pairing. Several are leading teams by playing their best hockey.

And then there is Michigan freshman Kyle Connor taking it to the next level.

The Hobey Baker top-10 finalist and Big Ten player of the year, still looking undersized at a listed 175 lbs, opened the second period with a natural hat trick, putting aside Penn State's hopes for the program's first ever NCAA Tournament appearance another year. He added another in the third period as Michigan defeated the Nittany Lions 7-2.

The Wolverines advance to Saturday's championship game where it will face the winner of Minnesota-Ohio State.

"It was a game we knew we had to get off to a good start and I thought we were fortunate enough do it," said Wolverines head coach Red Berenson, whose team had a bye. "Not having played yesterday, I thought we might be a little rusty and we couldn't  skate here today, it was an early game, so Penn State played and maybe had the benefit of some familiarity, but nevertheless, I thought we put our chances in and we were able to separate ourselves."

Connor took 8:41 to get three goals after Max Shuart and Alex Kile scored in the first period for Michigan (23-7-5). With a nation-leading 34 goals on the season, the 2015 Winnipeg Jets first round draft pick is on a 24 game point streak.

His four goals included the first hat trick in the three years of the Big Ten tournament and the most at Xcel Energy Center by a college player since Minnesota's Ryan Potulny scored four in 2006.

Linemate JT Compher had five assists, the most by a Wolverine since Chad Kolarik had five in 2008.

"The only line that comes to mind is playing against (Boston College's) Johnny Gaudreau and Arnold and Hayes a couple of years ago, but I'm a firm believer that Kyle Connor is the best player I've ever played against, and I even told him that in the handshake line," said Penn State junior forward David Goodwin.

Penn State (21-13-4) had found success against Michigan during the first two seasons the two teams played, getting its first conference win and ending an NCAA Tournament run for Michigan with a double OT win at Xcel Energy Center in 2014.

Lately it seems the Wolverines offense exploded. Michigan has outscored the Nittany Lions 24-4 over the last ten periods between the two teams and took all five games.

"Penn State is - I think they surprised everyone in college hockey," said Berenson. "And they've done a great job, the coaches and the players and the way they played. Tonight was more starting from square one.  I told our team Penn State will be a different team and we need to be a different team."

On the power play, Kevin Kerr broke the shutout for the Nittany Lions with 8:15 remaining in the second period when he tapped home a pass on the backdoor from Goodwin to make it 5-1.

Boo Nieves scored 46 seconds into the third period before Penn State's Luke Juha answered 42 seconds later.

The final half of the game was plagued with chippy play between the two teams. Michigan junior defenseman Michael Downing was given a game misconduct - his second of the season and seventh in his career - late in the second period after a scrum with Nittany Lions captain David Glen. Nittany Lions junior forward Zach Saar received a game misconduct in the third period for contact to the head and Wolverines goalie Steve Racine was ran over behind the net

Racine finished with 40 saves. His Penn State counterparts Eamon McAdam (14) and Matthew Skoff (18) nearly split the game evenly after McAdam was pulled for the fourth time in six games following Connor's third goal.

"I think anytime a college team can get 20 wins I think it's something special," said PSU head coach Guy Gadowsky about his lasting memory for the season. "And it just seems to be that number that a lot of people have looked at.  I certainly didn't see this coming this quickly so I think that, not only the seniors, but the entire team, is very proud of that.

"I think that's probably what I'm going to remember."

As for how Connor, playing on a line with Compher and Tyler Motte (so-named the "CCM" line) describes his own improvement offensively, defense comes into play.

Gaining chemistry with his linemates has helped as well, but looking at some video earlier in the season, he noticed some flaws that needed to be fixed on the other side of the ice.

"I think it kind of starts with the defensive area of the game," he said. "You know, if you're playing good defense, then you have more time to play with the puck down in the offensive zone."

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Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter --