ST. PAUL, Minn. — He may be a rookie, but sometimes he looks like a polished veteran.
The night after being named WCHA Rookie of the Year, Thomas Vanek netted the game-winner in overtime for Minnesota. The goal gave the Gophers a 3-2 victory over Minnesota State in a WCHA semifinal game.
With the puck on the right side of MSU’s zone, Vanek led a two-on-one rush down low. The freshman fired on net, and the puck struck MSU goaltender Jon Volp’s left shoulder and deflected into the net.
Vanek said the goal was probably the biggest he can remember, but the only thing he cared about was the win.
“It’s nice, but it doesn’t matter,” Vanek said. “Any one of us could have scored and I would have been as happy.”
Minnesota coach Don Lucia said he couldn’t have picked a better player to have the puck in overtime.
“It was a great play, a transition play,” said Lucia. “He snapped it, and that’s what he can do. That was a big league play.”
Despite playing in the Gophers’ backyard, MSU was the team to come out with passion and took the lead in front of 17,012 fans.
Grant Stevenson took a nice pass of the boards from teammate Shane Joseph. On the left side of a two-on-one, Stevenson put the puck between Minnesota goaltender Justin Johnson’s legs. The goal at the 1:54 mark put MSU up 1-0.
“I thought getting that first goal would have lifted us, but it seems like this year we’ve really struggled when we’ve scored the first goal,” Jutting, the WCHA Coach of the Year, said.
“I thought we came out really hard and took it to them for the first five minutes or so. But we scored that first goal and it was almost like, ‘Okay, we got that first one, now we can settle down a little bit.’ I think against a team that skilled and that good you have to keep after them.”
From there on out, the Gophers dominated play. That included outshooting MSU 38-8 after the first period.
The Gophers answered Stevenson’s goal at the 4:42 mark of the first as sophomore Barry Tallackson fired a wrist shot from the left side that evaded Volp.
“I give the Gophers credit. They really came at us hard,” MSU captain B.J. Abel said.
In the second, Minnesota twice thought it had a goal but finished the period scoreless.
Keith Ballard’s shot from the point hit the post, and Matt Koalska appeared to knock the rebound into the net with his skate. Official Derek Shepherd immediately waved off the goal, and video replay held up the call at 5:21 of the second.
Then, with seconds remaining in the period, a shot from the point hit the post, bounced off of Volp and landed in the crease before being cleared by MSU defenders.
Meanwhile, despite being outshot 17 to 3 in the period, the Mavericks took a 2-1 lead off their second power play of the night. Stevenson’s shot from the left point hit bodies in front. After finding the puck on the right side of the goal, Cole Bassett slid a backhand pass to the right side. Abel shot the puck into the net at 14:30 of the period.
After going six power plays without a goal, the Gophers finally converted on the man advantage to tie the game 1:58 into the third.
Ballard fired a shot from the left side of the slot. Volp came out to challenge the shot, but it found a hole and rolled behind the netminders and towards the net. Minnesota captain Grant Potulny shoved the puck into the goal before it could be swept away.
Potulny has had a strange experience at the Xcel Energy Center. The junior scored the game-winning goal here in overtime to capture last year’s NCAA championship. Then, in Minnesota’s first game of the year against Ohio State at the Xcel Center, Potulny was injured and missed the majority of the season.
“No bad feelings about this building,” Potulny said with a smile.
Minnesota continued to dominate play and outshot the Mavericks 16 to 5 in the third. But Volp stood strong, robbing Ballard’s chance in the slot 3:35 into the period. He later stopped Andy Sertich’s shot and Ballard’s rebound with less than two minutes left.
Volp finished the game with 46 saves on 49 shots.
“Obviously when you give up that many shots and you only give up three goals, your goaltender did a very good job for you,” Jutting said.
The Mavericks had a chance to prevent overtime with 3:35 left in regulation. Adam Gerlach found the puck on the left side, but Johnson made the save and allowed no rebound.
“When you’re playing like that, you’re only going to get a couple of opportunities, if that,” Jutting said. “I think that was really an opportunity where, if you’re going to play like that and win a hockey game, you probably gotta score on that chance.”
Vanek and the Gophers will move on to the WCHA Final Five championship game. They will play Colorado College for the Broadmoor trophy at 7:08 p.m. Saturday.
“One game for a banner,” Potulny said.
“I think it’s a real strong motivation,” Lucia said when asked about the NCAA implications of Saturday’s results. “If we win tomorrow, we’ll be the No. 1 seed and CC will go somewhere else.”
The Mavericks, meanwhile, will play in the third-place game against Minnesota-Duluth at 2:08 p.m. MSU looks to learn from its semifinal experience and carry it into the NCAA tournament, which the Mavericks are expected to make for the first time in school history.
“We’re definitely going to learn from our mistakes tonight,” Abel said.