Myers: Gophers overcome hot goalie to make final WCHA semifinal trip
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Six teams from the group we've collectively known as the Western Collegiate Hockey Association or "WCHA" for the last 60 years or so will gather one last time in St. Paul next weekend, to decide their playoff champion. And one last time before they head to the NCAA tournament later this month, and the Big Ten's hockey conference next season, the Gophers will be there.
The Gophers survived, and advanced, in dramatic fashion on Saturday, twice rallying from two goals down to tie Bemidji State, then finally beating the pesky Beavers with less than a minute left in regulation. For Gophers coach Don Lucia, winning this way, but still winning, was an educational experience.
"I thought this weekend was great for us. We told our guys going in that Bemidji plays a playoff style," Lucia said. "They play close to the vest, they don't beat themselves, their goaltender played well and they scored on the power play, the way they need to play."
Beavers' goalie Andrew Walsh made nearly 90 saves, many of them spectacular, in this best-of-three playoff series. But it was a pair of leakers that did him in on Saturday. The Gophers trailed by a pair late in the second period when Erik Haula set up a Nate Condon shot that Walsh thought he'd corralled between the pads, only to have the puck dribble over the goal line to pull the Gophers within 3-2.
After the Gophers tied the game in the third, defenseman Ben Marshall ended the Beavers' season in the waning seconds of regulation. Just seconds after the public address announcer had warned of one minute remaining, Marshall pulled off a classic "throw it on net, see what happens" play, somehow finding a gap in Walsh's armor for the game- and series-winner.
"Tip your hat to (Walsh). He played unbelievable all weekend," said Marshall. "You just throw a bouncer like that on net. I feel like for how many shots we had this weekend, one of those had to go in."
The Beavers, twice, took the "worst lead in hockey" with 2-0 and 3-1 advantages. The third goal was particularly tough, coming just 14 seconds after Nick Bjugstad got a power play goal to get the Gophers on the scoreboard and finally get some life in the sparse crowd.
A.J. Michaelson, an unheralded rookie from Apple Valley, finally tied the game midway through the third, snapping the rebound of a long-range shot. It was just the third goal of the season for Michaelson, but could hardly have come at a better time, and frustration over Walters and his propensity for turning aside shot after shot was starting to build.
"It's nice getting three goals, period, let alone against these guys in their building," said Beavers coach Tom Serratore. His team finishes the season 6-22-8, and won one just game after Christmas. "Typically in college hockey the first team to three wins. We were the first to three and we didn't get it done. But (Minnesota) is a team with the ability to put up four on a consistent basis and they're one of the few teams in the country that can put up four on a consistent basis."
Condon's goal pulled the Gophers back within a goal with 20 minutes to play. And with the Gophers rolling in the third, out-shooting Bemidji State by a 2-to-1 margin in the final 20 minutes, the end result was all but preordained.
As the second seed in the playoffs, the Gophers will play Friday night at Xcel Energy Center in the WCHA Final Five semifinals. Top-seeded St. Cloud State and fourth-seeded Wisconsin both won their playoff series on Saturday night as well and will meet the Gophers in St. Paul.
"Playing in the X, we just watched the State Tournament there and that's fun. You can imagine what it's going to be like when the college guys get there," Marshall said. "Obviously we're excited."