ST. PAUL, Minn. — From 2-7-1 to the Broadmoor Trophy winners. Watch out, college hockey — Minnesota is hot at NCAA tournament time again.
A team that has been asked over and over again this season why it hasn’t performed up to expectations may have finally quieted the critics Saturday night with an energetic third period that provided a second straight WCHA playoff title.
Thomas Vanek and Troy Riddle scored 2 minutes, 40 seconds apart to tie the game and give the Gophers the lead, respectively, but it was — guess who — Grant Potulny who got the game-winner in a 5-4 victory over top-ranked North Dakota in the WCHA Final Five championship game at the Xcel Energy Center.
A record crowd of 19,306 exploded when Potulny ended a frantic night of scoring with his 15th goal of the season with 6 minutes, 2 seconds remaining to break a 4-4 tie and give the Gophers the Broadmoor Trophy for the second straight season.
And they’re going into the NCAA tournament on a six-game winning streak and as a probable No. 1 seed — two things that would have been tough to fathom when Minnesota was 2-7-1 overall and 1-6-1 in the WCHA in the middle of November.
But counting out the Gophers back then was a big mistake, and they showed why Saturday night.
“I think we showed this weekend, beating two of the best teams in the country, in my opinion, that we can play with those teams,” said Potulny, the Gophers senior captain. “On the other hand, we still have work to do and I don’t think we’re satisfied until we win the last game of the year.”
Potulny capped off a three-goal third period for the Gophers by collecting a loose puck behind the net and wrapping it between North Dakota goaltender Jake Brandt’s legs.
The Gophers (26-13-3) made that lead stand up, even while the Sioux (29-7-3) pulled Brandt for an extra attacker while on the power play with more than three minutes remaining.
It made a winner out of Minnesota goaltender Kellen Briggs, who made 35 saves and was named the tournament MVP despite also allowing four goals in Friday’s 7-4 semifinal victory over Minnesota-Duluth.
Minnesota coach Don Lucia told his players between the second and third periods that his big players needed to play big in the final 20 minutes. The Gophers were down 3-2 after Zach Parise put the Sioux ahead late in the second period.
And the big names responded. First it was Vanek off a giveaway by UND defenseman Matt Greene to tie the game at 3. Then Riddle, who had four goals and five assists in a first-round series sweep of St. Cloud State, put the Gophers ahead 4-3 by poking home the rebound of a Chris Harrington shot off a faceoff.
North Dakota’s Brandon Bochenski responded with a shorthanded goal to tie the game again at 4, but Potulny made his reputation as a player who saves his best for the playoffs stand up. He also finally put an end to the rollercoaster ride that was the flow of the title game.
Potulny kicked over a garbage can in anger during the second intermission.
“I was a little fired up,” Potulny said, “because I thought we were letting the game slip away from us.”
Parise set off a wild final 25 minutes by putting the Sioux ahead 3-2 with 3:13 remaining in the second period and getting a little bit of revenge in the process.
A few minutes earlier, Parise was on the receiving end of a high stick by Vanek, drawing a penalty. Eight seconds after that minor expired, Parise fired a rebound past Briggs to put the Sioux ahead for the first time in the game.
It was Parise’s 22nd goal of the season and his third point of the game — he assisted on goals by Drew Stafford and Bochenski earlier Saturday.
“I think we’ve been playing our best hockey of the year, and if it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” Parise said. “I don’t think we really need to do anything different. … We don’t need to start pointing fingers at anyone. It was a team effort. We played well, we played hard. We’re going on all cylinders right now, it’s just you can’t win all the games.
“I think it’s a little wake-up call for us, to know that we are beatable if we don’t bring our game.”
Minnesota had grabbed the lead on two occasions and also had a goal that would have given it a two-goal lead waved off.
Almost seven minutes into the second period and with the Gophers leading 2-1, Jon Waibel followed a Barry Tallackson drive by chipping the puck over Brandt. Both referee Don Adam and an assistant referee signaled for a goal, but that ruling was overturned on video review.
Tallackson collided with Brandt after his shot, and Waibel’s putback came while Tallackson was standing in the crease.
“That’s almost like us scoring a goal, getting it back to a one-goal game,” Bochenski said.
It was a key no-goal because less than two minutes later, Bochenski tied the game at 2 with a tap-in of a Parise attempt from behind the net.
Danny Irmen put the Gophers ahead 1-0 on a power play midway through the first period, but despite that Minnesota had 16 of the last 18 shots on goal in the first period, North Dakota leveled the game with 3:03 left in the opening period on a power-play goal of its own by Stafford.
Waibel gave Minnesota a 2-1 lead with his fifth goal of the season, just under three minutes before the senior’s second goal of the game was waved off on replay.
Brandt finished with 33 saves, and the Sioux outshot the Gophers 39-38.
The long turnaround from that abysmal start isn’t complete, but the Gophers can see things coming together.
“We’re happy to be in there, especially when we started 2-7-1,” Lucia said. “That seems like a long time ago.”
It sure does.