MINNEAPOLIS — Nine months ago, Minnesota and New Hampshire met in Buffalo, N.Y. for the NCAA championship. Sunday at Mariucci Arena, if the stakes weren’t quite as high, the emotion was.
Minnesota grabbed a three-goal lead early, but a determined New Hampshire squad kept the suspense up until the end, rallying within a goal before the Gophers sealed a crucial 4-2 victory with Thomas Vanek’s empty-netter.
The Gophers were keyed offensively by tournament Most Valuable Player Matt Koalska, who scored a goal and added an assist on Grant Potulny’s second-period winner.
“It was the game I expected,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. “New Hampshire is a very good team. … We were able to pull it together and win a very important game for us.”
“You could see that this was the matchup people wanted to see,” said Minnesota defenseman Chris Harrington, “and as the game went on you could feel that it had a playoff-like atmosphere.”
The atmosphere might not have stayed so charged if not for UNH goaltender Mike Ayers, who made great saves from every angle to tie his career high of 44.
“Michael played well, but we’re used to him playing like that,” said New Hampshire head coach Dick Umile, whose players had made no secret of their desire to face Minnesota in the tournament championship.
“That’s what a goalie is supposed to do,” Ayers shrugged, “keep his team in it.”
The Gophers were a bit more effusive.
“Ayers was phenomenal,” Harrington said. “It could have been over right at the start. … It’s going to take 40, 45 shots to beat a goalie like that.”
For New Hampshire (11-6-2), Preston Callander continued to display a knack for being in the right place at the right time. The winger scored both New Hampshire goals, the second with less than two minutes left to bring UNH within 3-2.
“Our guys never quit when it was 3-1,” said Umile. “We knew if we got one goal we’d be right back in it.”
“If you make a mistake, you’re going to pay [against UNH],” Lucia agreed. “They’re a good defensive team.”
Both teams showed jump early, and Minnesota (9-8-1) nearly took the lead on its first power play. But Ayers was sharp, keeping the Gophers off the board despite intense pressure.
After a New Hampshire rush, the Gophers abruptly scored when Jon Waibel lost his defender in the slot, received a tape-to-tape pass from defenseman P.J. Atherton, deked twice to get Ayers down and flipped the puck into the open net.
The goal, at 8:41, was Waibel’s first of the season. His last came against Ayers as well, in that selfsame 2003 title tilt.
“It felt good to score before 2004 rolled around,” said Waibel. “Most of it was the pass … I just faked the shot, went around him and scored.”
Minnesota went repeatedly to the net for the next several minutes, but Ayers held firm, giving up only a couple of rebounds and no goals. Meanwhile, at the other end, Kellen Briggs made one of his 27 saves by stoning Callander on a one-on-one to preserve the Gopher lead.
However, the Gophers wasted little time after the first intermission. Harrington hit Koalska with a long lead pass through the neutral zone, and Koalska broke away from the defense, beating Ayers inside the left post to make it 2-0 at :51.
New Hampshire’s Tyson Teplitsky was called for hooking at 4:51, and the Wildcats’ problems were compounded when referee Derek Shepherd heard something he didn’t like from UNH and slapped the ‘Cats with a bench minor for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Potulny deflected Keith Ballard’s shot inside the right post just 27 seconds later, making the score 3-0. Still down one man, UNH faced a gut check when Callander went off for a slash, giving Minnesota another full minute of five-on-three.
Not only did the Wildcat penalty-kill hold, but Callander made amends by coming out of the box on a two-on-one break, taking Josh Ciocco’s pass and scoring high into the left side of the Gopher net to narrow the lead to 3-1.
It was then Minnesota’s chance to show its resolve. Harrington got tangled up with Callander behind the Gopher net and grabbed Callander’s facemask as a followup gesture.
For his efforts, he drew a holding penalty and a rough, putting the Gophers down a man for four minutes. But Minnesota stood firm, barely permitting the puck across the red line during the last two minutes of the power play.
In the third period, Minnesota began defending its zone more tightly and New Hampshire countered with a bit of dump-and-chase hockey.
Finally, the Wildcats found a way through the Minnesota wall. Again it was Callander in the clutch, as he worked his way free in the slot and scored when Nathan Martz poked a loose puck toward him from alongside the net.
“Preston Callander is a very good hockey player, and he played a very good hockey game,” said Umile.
Callander’s eighth goal of the year, at 18:01, precipitated a frantic two minutes that ended with Vanek’s empty-netter at 19:59. Ayers left the net in the final minute, but the Gophers repeatedly cleared the puck and UNH was unable to get a shot on goal with the extra attacker.
“I don’t think we were panicking,” said Koalska of the final minutes, “but we knew that throughout the year we’d had trouble giving [leads] up.”
That did not happen, and with the win, the Gophers achieved their first goal of a difficult season: to be over .500 at the holiday break.
“I think the break comes at a great time for us,” Lucia said. “Now we can recharge and get ready for the second half.”
Minnesota hosts Boston University for a pair Jan. 2-3, then visits Colorado College in WCHA play a week later. New Hampshire plays Yale Jan. 3 before resuming its Hockey East schedule against Providence the next weekend.
Notes: Koalska was joined on the All-Tournament team by Callander and Miami’s Derek Edwardson at forward, and by teammates Ballard and Jake Taylor on defense. Ayers was the all-tourney goaltender.