MINNEAPOLIS — Friday night, the Minnesota Golden Gophers and their fans got to celebrate the pinnacle of college hockey achievement. Before the Gophers’ home opener, the 2003 NCAA title banner was hung from the Mariucci Arena rafters to commemorate Minnesota’s second straight national championship.
Meanwhile, all Minnesota-Duluth got was the win.
T.J. Caig carried the big stick with two goals, the second the game winner at 2:55 of overtime. On that play, Caig got around two Gophers before unleashing a rocket of a slapshot that gave Minnesota-Duluth a 4-3 victory over Minnesota in both teams’ WCHA opener.
“It was a big-time shot,” said UMD head coach Scott Sandelin. “As any coach will tell you, any shot in overtime is a good shot.”
“I just came up the wall — it was kind of a lucky bounce,” said Caig. “Two of their guys started backing off, so I went into the [high] slot and just shot it.”
The result ended a number of streaks on both sides. The loss for Minnesota (1-2-0, 0-1-0 WCHA) was its first in 13 games at home, and its first in 12 games at Mariucci to the Bulldogs. The defeat was also Don Lucia’s first in a WCHA opener or a home opener as Minnesota head coach.
UMD (1-2-1, 1-0-0), meanwhile, got its first victory of the year, winning its first league opener under Sandelin.
Early play was up and down the ice, but also a bit sloppy at both ends. After two unsuccessful power plays, the third Bulldog man-advantage was a different story. Bryan McGregor won the faceoff back to Caig, and he put the Bulldogs on the board with a slapshot inside the left post at 14:38 of the first period.
Minnesota answered quickly with a power-play goal of its own, from a familiar source: Grant Potulny, parked in the slot, redirected Keith Ballard’s slapshot past UMD goalie Isaac Reichmuth at 16:14.
A giveaway in the Gopher defensive zone gave UMD a chance to retake the lead, but Minnesota netminder Justin Johnson was quick to poke away a loose puck in the slot.
Johnson was solid on the night for the Gophers, making 23 saves in his first home game since Travis Weber’s unexpected departure from the team.
With the final seconds of the period ticking away, the Bulldogs scored to silence the Mariucci crowd. Tyler Brosz led a two-on-one, gloved a loose puck out of midair, tossed it to the ice and suddenly whacked it past Johnson’s arm with just 12 seconds left in the frame.
Undaunted, preseason WCHA Player of the Year Thomas Vanek singlehandedly tied the game at 1:07 of the second period, cutting through traffic in the neutral zone, going wide and lifting the puck from the left side of the crease over Reichmuth’s shoulder.
“He’s a scary guy with the puck in the offensive zone,” said Sandelin.
Around the 3:30 mark, off a centering pass from Caig, Brett Hammond appeared to have regained the lead for Minnesota-Duluth, but Johnson got his right pad on it at the post. The puck dropped near the goal line, and after an officials’ conference, the play was ruled no goal.
“It was a bang-bang play,” said Sandelin. “If it wasn’t in, it was a great save.”
Three more power plays — two of them for the Bulldogs — passed without further scoring, but early in the third a hold by Caig gave the Gophers their fourth power play of the game, and Minnesota capitalized to take the lead for the first time.
Matt Koalska took the shot off Ballard’s diagonal pass in the zone, and the loose puck was tapped in by Troy Riddle at 4:48.
From that point on, the Gophers dominated, but could not get the insurance goal as Reichmuth turned away several quality chances en route to a sterling 35-save performance.
The Gophers’ inability to score proved costly, as the Bulldogs tied it on a Hammond goal at 15:24 after the puck took a Bulldog hop.
“The tying goal was just kind of a bad bounce,” said Lucia. “I think it was Chris [Harrington, defending the play]. He was in position, but it bounced by him and their guy was behind him.”
After a nice deke one-on-one with Johnson, Hammond put the puck through the five-hole to tie the game at 3.
“A little bounce off the D, and Brett found a way,” said Sandelin. “I didn’t know it was in the net.”
That sent the contest to the extra session. In the third period and OT combined, the Gophers outshot the Bulldogs 17-5, but were outscored 2-1.
Said Sandelin, “To find a way to win, especially after being down … It’s a character win.
“It’s the first time we’ve won here since what, ’97?”
Friday’s finish was a bit of deja vu. UMD also gave Minnesota its last loss of the 2002-03 season, a 5-4 stunner Feb. 22 at the DECC in Duluth. In that game, the Bulldogs also rallied from a deficit in the third to win in OT — though that time it was a three-goal Gopher lead that UMD overcame.
The same two teams face off Saturday night at 7 p.m. at Mariucci Arena. For Minnesota, Ballard left Friday’s game in the third period with an unspecified injury; his status for Saturday was unknown.