MINNEAPOLIS — Sitting on Minnesota quarterback Brock Faber’s back right in front of the crease, Dylan Duke raised his stick in triumph. As teammates rushed to help him up, the sophomore forward threw both arms wide, grinning from ear to ear.
Because after slipping, sliding and falling on the way to the net, Duke miraculously wrapped the puck around Golden Gopher goaltender Justin Close to give No. 4 Michigan hockey the final lead over No. 1 Minnesota for a 4-3 victory and along with them the Big Ten Championship.
“That’s just Duker,” freshman forward Rutger McGroarty said. “He gets fat and we love him for it. Duker is the man and I’m so happy for him.”
McGroarty couldn’t have described Duke’s style of play any better. Constantly in the dirty areas in front of the net, Duke has scored 17 goals in 38 games this season because he always forces himself into physical positions to do so. He pushes and shoves his way to the crease, making life hell for opposing defenders and goalies.
He did it in a to win against Michigan State, sending sophomore Luke Hughes’ wrist shot into the net. He did it in a losses to Boston University, boxing out in the slot and grabbing the rebound for a goal.
And he did it on the biggest stage of the season at Michigan in the Big Ten Championship on Saturday, catching a pass from freshman forward TJ Hughes before avoiding Faber’s check simple enough to slip the puck past Close.
It also wasn’t the first time Duke had done this against the Gophers. In a total of five games against the Big Ten’s No. 1 team, Duke has scored as many goals. In the Wolverines’ first disease-ravaged series against Minnesota, Duke put on a bare-bones offense. He crashed the net again and again, scoring four of Michigan’s five goals in the series.
“He had a lot of success against this team,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurata said. “But I don’t think it has anything to do with Minnesota. Duker scores big goals because he lives in the net. That’s the only way to score in big games.”
After a full season of taking pucks off skates, sticks and limbs to put them in the net, Duke has consistently dominated the most important area of the rink. And after spending all night in the slot again, taking over that territory in the third period on Saturday, he just so happened to be the big moment for the Big Ten championship-winning field goal.
“Big players score big goals at big times,” McGroarty said.
There’s a reason Duke scores big in big moments, why he’s the big-play player his teammates and coaches describe him as.
That’s because every game, Duke finds a way to the net. It doesn’t matter the stage of the game, the opponent, he will always sacrifice his body to score at Michigan. Yes, Duke is a big player, but he doesn’t stop at the big moments.
Because by always being in front of the net, Dylan Duke turns himself into a player in any game.