Myers: North Dakota was in top form, but 'U' prevails with late goal
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PHILADELPHIA -- While roughly 17,000 fans inside the Wells Fargo Center -- and countless more watching on TV -- were feeling amazement at what the Frozen Four had just produced, Gophers coach Don Lucia admitted other emotions.
"Really, it's more a feeling of relief than joy," Lucia said after his team's most improbable win of the season, and maybe ever. With 0.6 seconds on the clock, the Gophers got a shorthanded goal, the first of the season from senior defenseman Justin Holl, to beat North Dakota 2-1, and book a trip to the NCAA title game.
"It was just another boring Minnesota-North Dakota game tonight," Lucia deadpanned.
In truth, it was amazing, and for the Gophers, who came to Philadelphia with expectations of nothing less than a sixth NCAA hockey title, it was nearly a disaster.
On this night, North Dakota did everything except win for 59 minutes and 59.4 seconds.
"It's really important to know you left everything out there, and our guys did that," said North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol.
The public address announcer at the Wells Fargo Center butchered quite a few names on Thursday during the starting lineups, including referring to Gophers assistant coach Mike Guentzel as "Guentzler." But what he said about Hakstol and the North Dakota coaching staff was the real faux pas.
Someone apparently confused NoDak with the other "interlocking ND logo" team in college hockey and it was announced that North Dakota was led by head coach Jeff Jackson. For the record, Jackson coaches Notre Dame. Hakstol, North Dakota's intensely-focused coach, probably didn't even notice the slight.
He had clearly spent the 10 days between the end of the regionals and the start of the Frozen Four prepping his team for ways to counteract Minnesota's offense. On Thursday night, it all worked close to perfectly, for all but that last second. North Dakota got sticks into the Gophers' passing lanes in the offensive zone. They blocked shots. They slowed the Gophers' offensive attack just enough to throw off their rhythm. In general, they made a mess of the Gophers' normal offense.
"I thought our guys did an excellent job through the week of really concentrating on improving some of the details of our game," Hakstol said. "It wasn't necessarily specifically towards Minnesota. We wanted to play our best hockey game tonight. I thought without the puck, we probably did play our best game of the season."
In all three periods, North Dakota controlled the offensive zone and peppered the Minnesota goalie. And for all but one of the shot he faced, Wilcox was the difference, especially in the final two minutes, with North Dakota on the power play.
"They threw a lot of pressure at us. It was really tough at times," said Wilcox, who had 36 saves. "There were a few minutes getting shots off. Seemed like when they were missing, they get the puck right back and shoot."
With 9.6 seconds left, Wilcox smothered a point-blank shot by North Dakota, looking back toward the goal line for just an instant to make sure he had the puck, and forcing a faceoff. The Gophers' won the draw, and could've iced the puck to almost assuredly force overtime. Instead, co-captain Kyle Rau headed up ice with the puck, with Holl joining the unlikely offensive rush, still down a man.
"With nine seconds left, I looked up," Wilcox recalled. "I was hoping we would get that nine seconds without another shot so we could go into overtime...I was just kinda looking up, waiting for time to expire to go into OT, all of a sudden I see Hollsey shoot the puck and it went in."
It was just one instant in a season filled with memorable moments. But that was the difference between a North Dakota defensive plan that worked almost to perfection, and a Gophers team that will play on Saturday, with a national crown there for the claiming.