BUFFALO, N.Y. — In beating Michigan to advance to Saturday’s NCAA championship game against New Hampshire, Minnesota copied a page from last year’s Frozen Four book while forcing the Wolverines to repeat some history that Michigan would rather have forgotten.
For the second straight year, the Golden Gophers eliminated the Wolverines in a Frozen Four semifinal game en route to the title match, and for the second straight year the final score was 3-2, but in this contest there was one important difference: Minnesota had to come from behind.
The Golden Gophers tied the game in the third and won on Thomas Vanek’s goal at 8:55 in overtime at the HSBC Arena.
“I was a little surprised in the first period at how nervous we were,” said Minnesota coach Don Lucia. “We struggled. I really think the key to the game for us was the play of Travis [Weber] in the first period. The game could have been over in the first period. We could have easily been down by three.”
Weber finished the game with 31 saves, keeping the game close while Michigan edged Minnesota in shots on goal, 33-32.
The Wolverines controlled the tempo in the fast, physical first period, outshooting the Gophers 15-5, taking a 1-0 lead at 9:33 when Brandon Kaleniecki scored on Andrew Ebbett’s feed right after a faceoff in the Minnesota zone.
Even though Minnesota turned the tables on Michigan in the second — outshooting Michigan 15-6, firing the puck from seemingly everywhere in the Michigan zone, and responding aggressively to Michigan’s physical play — the Wolverines extended their lead to 2-0 when Jed Ortmeyer backhanded one past Weber from the top of the crease at 14:38, surprising the Minnesota goaltender five-hole.
But the momentum turned for good when Troy Riddle finally tallied for the Gophers. At 17:45, Riddle poked in Vanek’s initial shot beneath Michigan goaltender Al Montoya, a goal on which review showed the puck crossing the line before Montoya could glove it out.
Gino Guyer knotted the game from high in the slot 1:35 into the third after receiving Barry Tallackson’s beautiful backhanded pass from the right circle.
In overtime, Montoya was looking for Vanek to center a pass from the left corner, but the freshman from Graz, Austria, took the shot himself from the goal line and found the far side of the net to give Minnesota the win.
“We got better as the game went on,” said Lucia. “When we got two-nothing, I had flashbacks to the reverse. We were up two-nothing after two last year [against Michigan] and went on to win the game three to two, and that’s what was kind of going on through my mind.
“The first goal was key. We had some pressure going in the second period, and we were finally able to get that first goal, and I think that changed the game a little bit back in our favor.”
“We got the start that we wanted to … but there’s just no good lead in hockey,” said Michigan senior and assistant captain, John Shouneyia. “The puck started to bounce the other way. It’s all about momentum, and the momentum was going our way in the start and kind of shifted a little bit through the middle of the game. We thought we were getting some back, but we just … didn’t.”
Vanek said that the way in which they finished the season may have contributed to the Gophers’ slow start in the game. Minnesota rode a nine-game unbeaten streak into the Frozen Four.
“We were playing so well in the past four weeks that in the first period I think we were a little bit overconfident maybe,” said Vanek. “We had to come out harder in the second.”
“Coach mentioned after the first period that he was kind of nervous, actually, that we didn’t look as nervous as we should have been at the start of the game,” added Weber. “Our forwards responded really well in the second period and got some shots on net.”
Coming into the game, goaltending was considered to be the least consistent part of the Gophers’ game, but Lucia said he had confidence in Weber all along.
“Everybody’s talked about the goalies here…and Travis just kind of sat back and bit his tongue a little bit because he was the one who was a little bit maligned coming in, and talked about unfairly in my opinion and he really stood tall tonight. He gave us an opportunity to win the game.”
Michigan head coach Red Berenson said that the toughest part of his job was saying goodbye to his senior class. “They’ve given so much to the team and the program and they don’t get another chance.
“Maybe it’s just another game but our team fully expected to be in that championship game Saturday night.”
Minnesota (27-8-9) faces New Hampshire (28-7-6) for the national championship at 7 p.m. Saturday night in HSBC Arena, marking the second time the Golden Gophers and the Wildcats will meet in the Frozen Four. In 1979, Minnesota beat New Hampshire in semifinal play before defeating North Dakota for the program’s third national title.
“It’s great for their [UNH's] program that they’re playing in the last game of the year and it’s great for our program,” said Lucia. “I just want to see both teams have great games. That’s the bottom line.”