BUFFALO, N.Y. — With their 5-1 win over the New Hampshire Wildcats, the Minnesota Golden Gophers became the first team to claim back-to-back national titles since the 1972 Boston University Terriers.
In a sport where dynasties are scarce — the NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey title has been captured by 14 different teams in its 55-year history, with seven different victors in the past seven years — the Gophers and head coach Don Lucia took a significant step toward creating something that may be untouchable for another 31 years.
Thomas Vanek’s game winning goal at 8:14 in the third put the Gophers ahead for good and opened the floodgates for Minnesota’s offense to clinch the championship and rewrite history.
“He’s a great player who seems to step up when the game is on the line and that’s what great players do,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia of the 2003 Frozen Four’s Most Outstanding Player and this year’s WCHA Rookie of the Year.
But Lucia was quick to add that this championship was a team effort. “This year, more than any year, it didn’t seem just one guy; it was a different player every night. I’m really proud of our guys.”
Minnesota’s Matt DeMarchi and UNH’s Sean Collins traded goals in the first, and the score remained tied 1-1 through 48 minutes of play. Vanek’s goal was the first of three Golden Gopher tallies in a six-minute span. Jon Waibel made it 3-1 at 11:25 in the third, and Barry Tallackson increased the lead again at 13:34.
Tallackson also had the empty-netter at 18:31.
Travis Weber backstopped the Gophers with 26 saves on the night, as Minnesota outshot UNH 45-27. Coming into this Frozen Four, Weber was considered the least-capable goaltender among the four teams’ starters, much as Adam Hauser was last year for the Gophers.
“That can get frustrating when they’re criticizing you and saying that you’re the weakest link in the team,” said Weber. “I kind of took that as a challenge and I used that as motivation.”
“We talked about coming into … the NCAA tournament [and how] you have do better than a [.900] save percentage,” said Lucia. “All the talk was about the other three goaltenders, well I think Travis made a pretty good statement this weekend.”
“It was a great season. It was a great team to coach,” said Dick Umile, UNH head coach. “They should be very proud. No one has done what they’ve done at this school. They’ve won two Hockey East Championship and [made two trips to the] Frozen Four. We just lost to a better team tonight … but I’m very, very proud of the team.”
DeMarchi’s opened the scoring at 10:58 in the first, just his eighth goal of the season and one second after the Wildcats killed Colin Hemingway’s charging penalty. DeMarchi’s slapshot from the right point made it through traffic, slid underneath a prone UNH defender, passed by two Minnesota players, and finally found its way home through the legs of a screened Mike Ayers to give Minnesota its first lead of the game.
The Wildcats tied it with less than a minute to go in the stanza on a power play of their own. With Garrett Smaagaard serving two minutes for hitting after the whistle, Nathan Martz drew Weber right, but passed left to Collins instead of shooting; Collins’ shot found the far side of the net to knot the game.
In the second period, both Ayers and Weber gave spectacular performances to keep the score tied at 1. Late in the second, Ayers’ quick glove robbed Matt Koalska of a sure thing after Koalska took a centering pass from Troy Riddle and shot point-blank.
Ayers had a little help with 5.6 seconds left in the second when Tallackson stole the puck at the Minnesota blue line, skated in alone on the left wing, and fired far side, hitting the pipe where the crossbar meets the upright.
“I thought in the second period we kind of turned it around and made it an even game, at that point,” said Umile. “The first 10 minutes, the game was up for grabs still, but they came out in the last 10 minutes and made some great plays. Obviously Vanek is a tremendous hockey player and he made a great move and that was a huge goal.”
The move that Vanek made was one for the highlight reel and the ages. Flying down the left wing alone, Vanek shifted direction slightly to get around UNH defender Mick Mounsey. Mounsey then dove into the net to back up Ayers, who had come out to challenge Vanek. Vanek crossed the crease left to right, shot behind Ayers, and beat Mounsey under the defender’s extended leg at 8:14.
“He showed a lot of patience,” said Ayers, who finished the game with 40 saves. “When I went down, he had a lot more room short side than I expected. He made a great play and it was a good goal-scorer’s goal.”
That gave the Gophers all the momentum they needed. Three minutes later, Vanek took the puck down the right wing and shot, with Waibel picking up the rebound. Ayers saved Waibel’s initial shot but the puck squirted back out to Vanek in the left corner. Vanek then passed from the corner back to Waibel between the circles, and Waibel’s shot beat Ayers midway up on the goalie’s glove side to make it a 3-1 game at 11:25.
At 13:34, Tallackson’s first goal came from Gino Guyer and Chris Harrington. Harrington won the battle in the right corner and passed out to Guyer on the opposite side of the net; Guyer fed it back across the crease to Tallackson who stuffed it in short side.
Tallackson’s empty-net goal came from a four-on-one Minnesota break at 18:31, fed by Grant Potulny.
“I’m really proud of this team because of how far they came from the beginning of the year until now,” said Lucia. “Without question we’re playing our best hockey and the reason we’re sitting here is guys like Matt DeMarchi who … early in the year struggled a little bit — he’d be the first to admit — but at the end of the year, he’d be outstanding.”
Lucia said that the Minnesota coaching staff was a little concerned about the team’s attitude coming into this game. Last year, the Gophers were home, staying in downtown St. Paul, Minn. This year, said Lucia, the trip almost felt like a “Christmas tournament.”
“Last night, we talked about how you had to want this with every fiber in your body because we knew that UNH would,” said Lucia.
Lucia credited UNH with being a “class program.”
“Unfortunately, they lost their leading scorer [Lanny Gare] a week ago and I’m sure that had a big effect on the team. Any time you lose a great player like that out of your lineup, this is not the time to do it. We’re fortunate that we had all of our injuries early in the year … and had a chance to get everybody back and healthy.”
Umile returned the favor. “I know he had some nice things to say, and that’s how I feel about him. He’s a terrific coach and he had his team playing extremely well, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.”
For Minnesota (28-8-9), this is not just a second consecutive national title, but its second during Lucia’s four-year tenure as head coach.
For UNH, it’s another painful second place. The Wildcats (28-8-6) lost the 1999 title game to Hockey East rival Maine, 3-2, in overtime. UNH has appeared in the Frozen Four seven times, but has never captured the title.