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Updated: April 11th, 2014 1:37am
Zulgad: Gophers-North Dakota Frozen Four showdown lives up to the hype

Zulgad: Gophers-North Dakota Frozen Four showdown lives up to the hype

by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- The Minnesota Gophers tried to convince everyone within earshot it didn't make a difference.

All that mattered was Justin Holl's last-second goal in the third period gave them a 2-1 victory Thursday in the semifinals of the Frozen Four and that meant they would face Union in the title game Saturday.

The fact that the thrilling one-goal win had come against arch-rival North Dakota? That didn't give them added satisfaction.

"It didn't matter if we were playing North Dakota or North Carolina," said Gophers coach Don Lucia, who will be looking for his third national title with the program. "They are a good team, well coached, great program. ... I've been on the other side of (a loss like this). It's no fun. I feel bad for them."

Lucia might have felt bad for North Dakota, but it's hard to believe that beating their former WCHA nemesis carried no extra meaning for Minnesota.

The Gophers and North Dakota had met 290 times entering Thursday. Matchup No. 291 was unexpected.

It came only because both teams made it through their respective brackets in the NCAA Regionals.

After a season of grumbling about how no opponent on the Gophers' schedule in the new Big Ten Conference could match the type of intensity that happened when North Dakota came to Mariucci or Minnesota traveled to Grand Forks, we finally got what we thought we wouldn't see.

The immediate reaction upon learning this was excitement. The second feeling was more a nervous one over whether this game could possibly live up to expectations.

In the end, it didn't just live up to expectations, it exceeded every one of them.

The game was scoreless until 10 minutes, 51 seconds of the third period when Sam Warning gave the Gophers a 1-0 lead by beating North Dakota goalie Zane Gothberg, who was spectacular for much of the evening.

Considering the scoring drought up to that point, and how good Gophers goalie Adam Wilcox had been in his net, there appeared a real chance that would be the only goal scored in the game at Wells Fargo Center.

But 32 seconds later, Connor Gaarder scored for North Dakota to tie things and set up a finish no one could have seen coming.

Gaarder came down the left wing side and managed to get around Gophers defenseman Mike Reilly. Gaarder took a backhand shot that Wilcox saved but got the rebound and scored on a forehand.

"He came down and shot it, it hit the pipe and I didn't know where it went off the pipe," Wilcox said. "He hit it in before I really could find it again. It was a good goal by him. I should have been on the post, kind of more secure but it was a bad bounce for me and a good play by him to get (the puck) out of the air."

That set up one of the most memorable finishes in Frozen Four history that actually started when Gophers winger Connor Reilly was called for holding at 18:21.

The Gophers had just about killed it off and forced overtime when things took another twist.

Holl, a senior defenseman for the Gophers who had no goals in his first 37 games of 2013-14, scored shorthanded with 0.6 seconds left after Kyle Rau's shot was blocked by a North Dakota defenseman.

"It was unbelievable," Wilcox said when asked if he could have envisioned the scenario that played out Thursday. "The roller-coaster at the end of the game there with getting a goal, then them coming down and getting one right away and then taking a penalty with a minute, 39 left. ... I couldn't even picture (the finish)."

Senior co-captain Nate Condon also marveled at the finish, but, like Lucia, he wasn't willing to say that the win was extra special because the Gophers beat North Dakota.

"I think it was sweeter going into the game that we got to play against them," Condon said. "It's kind of motivation for the guys going out there and playing against a rival like that. Making the championship is bigger to me than beating North Dakota."

As for whether the emotion of Thursday will have any impact on Saturday's game, Condon thinks the day off will take care of that.

"I think that's why they gave us a day of rest," he said. "I think if we played again tomorrow guys still might be a little bit on a high. But I think tomorrow we'll settle in at practice, guys will kind of get it out of their system and we'll be ready to play. You don't come here to win one game and I think that's probably going to be the mentality."

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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