BUFFALO, N.Y. — So that’s where Thomas Vanek was hiding.
Minnesota’s freshman phenom was noticeably absent from the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ attack for most of their national semifinal game. He had an assist on their first goal, but didn’t have the room to make the kind of impact he did in the West Regional.
Then No. 26 got No. 30. Vanek’s 30th goal of his first season, 8 minutes, 55 seconds into overtime, sent Minnesota to the national championship game courtesy of a 3-2 victory over Michigan on Thursday.
And talk about your turnarounds. Nervous and on their heels, the Gophers started this Frozen Four in a 2-0 hole. Vanek didn’t have a shot on goal in the first or third period.
Michigan’s intense defensive pressure and the loss of 15 feet of width from the Mariucci Arena ice surface, on which the Gophers racked up 16 goals in two regional games, had Minnesota’s offense struggling.
But missing out on the opportunity to have an impact on this game never was a thought in his mind, Vanek said.
“The first period, we played awful,” Vanek said. “They took it to us really bad. But then after Troy [Riddle] scored the first goal, I think we got some momentum back. I stayed focused the whole game and I got the chance, and thank God we won.”
It comes as no surprise, however, that two freshmen played big roles in giving the Gophers the chance to become the first team in 31 years to successfully defend its national title.
Gino Guyer scored the goal that put the teams back on level terms in the third period. He had five assists in the regional semifinal victory over Mercyhurst.
Vanek’s goal was his sixth in seven playoff games. On the left side of the net, he spun out front and wrapped the puck between the legs of Michigan goalie Al Montoya.
“Those guys don’t play like freshmen,” Gophers captain Grant Potulny said. “They’ve played 40-some-odd games for this team. They come in, there’s no hazing, there’s no anything. It’s just, hey, you’re part of this team, let’s get this going. They’re comfortable in here. They’re as vocal as anybody else.”
Riddle said: “It really, honestly doesn’t surprise me. They had a chance all year when all our guys got hurt. Coach gave them some good roles, they played most of the year and they developed that. It’s real good to see we got it done tonight.”
Potulny had the first great chance of overtime, hitting the left post inside two minutes.
His thinking then? “It ain’t our night,” he said.
“I’ve been in that situation a lot of times and in 98 percent of the time it somehow finds the back of the net,” added Potulny, who scored the overtime goal that gave Minnesota the national championship last season. “When it missed, I was like, well, at least it ain’t my night, that’s for sure.”
It didn’t have to be. The freshmen had him covered.