ST. PAUL, Minn. — In the end, it was the kid from North Dakota who ended 22 years of Minnesota’s unrequited pursuit of postseason happiness.
At 16:58 in overtime, in St. Paul, in front of a partisan crowd of 19,324 fans, Grant Potulny capitalized on a power play to deliver the 2002 NCAA championship to the Minnesota faithful.
“From day one here, I’ve been a Gopher,” said Potulny. “I’ve got that ‘M’ tattooed on my chest, so I’ll be a Gopher for the rest of my life.”
“Obviously, this was a very tough loss for us,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “We were 55 seconds away from winning it, but as we’ve learned obviously very well this year, life doesn’t end up with the storybook ending all the time.”
This was a wild one, with back-and-forth play, momentum swings, a last-minute goal to send it into overtime, and finally the overtime tripping call against Maine’s Michael Schutte that led to Minnesota’s game winning goal.
Minnesota came out flying, outshooting the Black Bears 5-2 in the first seven minutes, and scoring on its fifth shot on goal. Keith Ballard made it 1-0 after one when he scored from the slot on the power play at 7:18 after taking Troy Riddle’s centering pass.
Schutte tied it for Maine at 4:47 in the second with Potulny in the box, but Peter Metcalf’s feed had as much to do with the goal as Schutte’s game-knotter as did the junior’s shot. At the top of the slot, Metcalf looked to the net but passed to Schutte, camped to the right of the crease.
By the time Minnesota goaltender Adam Hauser, completely taken in, realized that Schutte and not Metcalf had the puck, it was too late. Schutte had a wide-open net and several seconds to make sure he put it home.
The tie was short lived, as Johnny Pohl scored his 27th of the season for Minnesota at 5:38. Skating into the Maine zone on the left wing, Pohl rifled a shot from the top of the left circle, sending the puck between the stick and leg of Black Bear Cliff Loya, and into the net off the far post, and Minnesota took a 2-1 lead into the third.
With Schutte’s second goal 1:17 into the third, Maine captured the momentum, outshooting the Gophers 16-9 in the final 20 minutes of regulation, and mounting a come from behind that culminated in a go-ahead goal at 15:27.
After Niko Dimitrakos shot wide left of the Minnesota net, Robert Liscak picked up the puck near the boards, skated to the goal line, and shot toward the Gopher net, banking in Maine’s third goal off of the backside of Hauser’s left leg.
With less than five minutes remaining in regulation, it appeared as though the Black Bears were on their way to their third national title — but Matt Koalska and the Golden Gophers had other plans, knotting the score with 53 seconds left in regulation.
Koalska’s goal came right after a faceoff in the right Maine circle. Pohl won the draw, tipped to Riddle, and Koalska took advantage of traffic in front of the Black Bear net to send the game into overtime.
“Maine really took it to us through a lot of the game, and we were lucky,” said Pohl. “We were lucky. Adam [Hauser] bailed us out a lot, and then Koalska came up huge.
“Between the third period and overtime, we talked about staying fresh and staying on the net, and not turning the puck over. Maine could have easily won that game and maybe even deserved it. Up until the last minute there, they probably deserved to win the game.
“We had that lucky bounce — Matt Koalska’s goal — and we were pretty determined in overtime.”
That determination paid off with Potulny’s game-winner at 16:58. Jordan Leopold passed from the right point to Pohl, to the left of the Maine crease. Instead of connecting with Pohl, Leopold found the chest of a Maine defender. The puck dropped directly down to the tape of Potulny’s stick, and the Grand Forks, N.D., native put the puck underneath the right leg of Matt Yeats to give the Gophers the national title.
The penalty that led to that power play was Schutte’s neutral-zone trip of Koalska, and Whitehead said the call — the only penalty called in overtime — was “a little surprising.”
“Had it been in the offensive zone and it was a clear-cut two-on-one or scoring chance like that, then I’d say that was a good call, but that’s not the reason we lost,” said Whitehead. “That’s just my opinion on that call.”
Peter Metcalf, Maine’s captain, had stronger words for CCHA referee Steve Piotrowski, the official who made the call and who ejected Maine coach Shawn Walsh from his final game in last year’s NCAA East Regional.
“The guy had it out for us,” said Metcalf. “Is that the guy who threw Coach Walsh out last year? I think someone should have taken note of that and not thrown him into the game. Bad play by the NCAA. He gave them chances enough to win, and they did. Someone didn’t do their homework.”
Leopold said he sympathized with Schutte’s instinct to stop Koalska from finding a scoring opportunity. “It’s really a tough play in hockey because when you go for a big hit like that, if the guy kind of sidesteps you, you don’t want to get beat really bad. It’s kind of a reaction if anything. I would have probably done the same thing in the same situation.”
Whitehead was quick to point out that Metcalf was speaking from frustration, and that he himself didn’t blame the loss on officiating. “They won because they found a way to win. They battled back. Our hats are off to them, because it was a great comeback.”
For the Black Bears, who were playing as much for the memory of coach Shawn Walsh, who died of cancer last September as much as for anything else, this loss was particularly emotional.
“I’m proud of our players, proud of my fellow coaches, and everyone associated with our program,” said Whitehead. “The support we received this year — from everyone connected to it, all the people in the state of Maine — was just unbelievable.”
For Hauser — often blamed by Minnesota fans when the Gophers came up short in the past — being named to the all-tournament team and winning the national championship in his final game as a Golden Gopher was response enough to his critics.
“Sometimes when you look at the goaltender as the one person who has to play well,” said Hauser, “I think it’s bogus. If the goaltender was the best player on the team, and he was supposed to carry the team all the way through the playoffs, Ryan Miller would have two national titles, Wade Dubielewicz … would be playing in the final four, Patrick Roy would have had 50 Stanley Cup rings.
“I can only do my job. I can’t take it any farther than that. I just have to trust everyone else and I hope they trust me back there. That’s the only thing you can do.”
Hauser finished the game with 42 saves, and a total of 69 in two Frozen Four games.
“He silenced all critics,” said Pohl, “and what better way to ride off into the sunset?”