DENVER — If you’re a Minnesota Golden Gophers fan, what do you take away from Saturday afternoon’s win in the first round of the NCAA West Regional, a 4-3 thriller over the Air Force Falcons?
For the better part of three periods, the Gophers were outworked, outhustled and outscored by the smaller, hungrier Falcons. And yet, with a little luck, the Gophers were able to pull out the victory in the end.
“Obviously we were the favorite going into the game, and it makes it even more tough when everyone hypes it up like you’re supposed to kill this team,” said Gophers captain Mike Vannelli. “They played us tough for 60 minutes.”
Midway through the third period, many in the press box were surprised that the Gophers, after last year’s upset, still were not moving their feet. The Falcons were beating them to pucks, and the Gophers looked fatigued. On the TV broadcast, ESPN was showing footage of last year’s game against Holy Cross during a break in the action.
History seemed on the verge of repeating itself.
“I think when you’re in the heat of the battle, you don’t think about it as much,” said Vannelli of the Holy Cross game. “After the game, I thought about it a little.”
Even when they were working, the Gophers seemed snakebit. On a power play midway through the period, Falcons netminder Andrew Volkening absolutely robbed Ryan Stoa in front. Stoa received a pass in the crease near the right post and tried to one-time it in, only to have Volkening slide over and make the save of the game.
However, the Gophers didn’t panic. Almost to a fault, they didn’t panic.
Moments after Stoa was robbed, he connected on a carbon copy of that play, this time beating Volkening through the five-hole, sparking the Gophers on their way to three goals in a three minute, 36-second span that propelled them to victory.
“I think it was huge for us to get that power-play goal,” said Gophers’ freshman Mike Carman, who got the game winner. “It’s exactly what sparked our team and turned the game around for us.”
The tying and winning goals are typical of a team that works hard. Teams that work hard often generate their own luck, and neither the tying nor the winning tally was a pretty, highlight-reel goal, but pucks that bounced right at the right time. Falcons’ coach Frank Serratore talked about them being “blue collar-type goals.”
In the last five minutes of the period, the Falcons clearly had tired, having trouble getting pressure on Gophers goalie Kellen Briggs. Serratore pulled Volkening with two minutes to go, and the Falcons had several quality chances at the end, almost forcing an overtime.
In a game where it seemed the Gophers weren’t particularly playing well, or with any sense of urgency, they still came out on top. These are the types of wins that can build a team’s belief, if they take the proper lessons from them.
If the Gophers can show the kind of effort they displayed for the last half of the third period, this game could be the spark that leads them to the Frozen Four.
Still, the Gophers downplayed their apparent lack of consistent effort. Vannelli said, “I don’t think it was us playing bad as much as Air Force played a good hockey game. It was a tight game throughout.”
Hockey coaches like to spout platitudes about how every game is different, but clearly the Gophers were still thinking about last year’s loss to Holy Cross during this game. Afterwards, Gophers coach Don Lucia acknowledged that nerves played a role in their play.
“As the game was going on, I think our guys were playing but they never felt that sense of urgency,” said Gophers coach Don Lucia. “Sometimes when you’re nervous, your legs don’t go. We had to score on that power play. Had we not scored on that power play, I don’t know if we would have won the game.”