« So Many Opinions, So Little Time

Gophers stun UND with a walk-off, half-court, Hail Mary, buzzer beater, hole in one

by Mike McFeely

Philadelphia

The winning goal in the Frozen Four college hockey semifinals came as time expired, short-handed, by a player who hadn't putthe puck in the net all season.

Other than that, Thursday night's hockey game at Wells Fargo Center was nothing special.

"I guess it was just another boring Minnesota-North Dakota game tonight," dead-panned Gophers coach Don Lucia.

"The Don" could afford to joke because his team was the beneficiary of all the stars aligning in a way that had a press boxfull of college hockey experts (present company not included) scratching their heads wondering if a game had ever beforeended in such a manner. The consensus was: Not bloody likely.

Minnesota beat UND 2-1 on a goal by senior Justin Holl with, officially, 1 second left. The truth is, the puck went in with0.6 remaining and then time expired. It was the hockey version of a Hail Mary, a half-court basketball buzzer-beater, awalk-off home run with two outs and two strikes, a hole in one to win the Masters in extra holes.

"I can see there's definitely probably shock on their side and definitely surprise on our side, too, because really ...we're thinking we're trying to kill it off and get to overtime and get through this penalty. And just like that, the game'sover," Holl said.

"It's a bit of a numbing feeling," UND coach Dave Hakstol said, probably summing up the feelings of thousands of fans backin North Dakota.

In a heated rivalry that began in 1948, this game might go down as the best ever between the teams. Especially consideringthe teams didn't play during the regular season for the first time in 66 years because of the breakup of the WCHA. Thematchup was worth the wait. Goalies Zane Gothberg of UND and Adam Wilcox of Minnesota dominated the action with several goodsaves through the first 2 1/2 periods. Then the Gophers took the lead with midway through the third, only to have UND tie it34 seconds later.

Which set the stage for one of the most stunning finishes in college hockey history.

With Minnesota's Connor Reilly in the penalty box for holding and the Gophers simply trying to hold on for dear life andforce overtime, Kyle Rau won a faceoff in Minnesota's with 9 seconds left end to start the final rush. The puck went toBrady Skjei, who chipped it up the ice. Holl got the puck and fired what appeared to be a desperation shot at Gotherberg to beat the horn. The puck clanged off the right post and went in just as time expired, setting off a wild, bench-clearingcelebration from the Gophers.

Officials reviewed the goal, but it was quickly upheld. That set off another Gopher hog-pile on the ice.

"It's a pretty amazing feeling," said Holl, one of the few seniors on Minnesota's roster. "It's surreal right now, but we'rejust happy to be moving on."

Some would say the Gophers are very fortunate to be moving on to the title game against Union (N.Y.). UND had a game plan tosell-out trying to block Minnesota's shots and it did a tremendous job of deflecting passes and generally clogging things upin front of Gothberg. UND controlled play for much of the third period and had Minnesota on its heels for long stretches.

UND had 37 shots on goal to Minnesota's 28 overall, including 13-7 in the final period. UND took 83 shots in the game whilelimiting Minnesota to 52.

"North Dakota played very well," Lucia said. "In many ways, they probably deserved better."

It's not like Minnesota was a bunch of slouches, especially Rau. He's been the player the Gophers have leaned on all year towin faceoffs and make plays, and he did that against UND. Gopher players in the postgame press conference referenced Rauwinning the faceoff with 9 seconds left almost as much as Holl's game-winner.

But Holl will go in the books as the player who kept Minnesota's hopes alive for their first national title since 2003.

"It hit a couple of skates, hit a couple of sticks and it was in the back of the net," UND forward Stephane Pattyn said."Not much more I can say."

Said Lucia: "Probably for me it was more relief than joy. ... I've been on the other side of it. It's no fun. I feel bad for them."

It was a heck of a way to continue -- belatedly -- the best rivalry in college hockey. Although Lucia tried his best todownplay that angle, as he's done for the last two weeks.

"To be honest, it didn't matter if it was North Dakota or North Carolina," he said.

To be honest, I find that hard to believe.