MINNEAPOLIS — Jimmy Howard did everything he could, but in the end, Minnesota simply outlasted the Maine goaltender.
After Howard stopped all 37 Minnesota shots in regulation, the Gophers’ Evan Kaufmann scored on a one-timer from point-blank range 1:46 into overtime, giving Minnesota a 1-0 win in a thrilling regional semifinal at Mariucci Arena.
On the play, Kaufmann won the draw in the Maine zone, then went to the net for an eventual return pass from Garrett Smaagaard.
“We had a nice cycle play between [Andy] Sertich and Smaagaard,” said Kaufmann. “I think it confused their [defenders]. They ended up getting three guys below the goal line, and left me alone out front.”
Kaufmann’s shot off the centering pass by Smaagaard was a full-on blast from just outside the crease that left Howard no chance.
But up until Kaufmann’s goal, the stalwart, often spectacular, play of Howard had been the story of the game.
“This goaltender next to me, I thought, was just the best player on the ice, as always,” said Maine head coach Tim Whitehead of Howard.
Meanwhile, the other goaltender Saturday, Minnesota’s Kellen Briggs, pitched a 25-save shutout, then spent a good portion of the postgame press conference listening to questions about Howard.
“I just had to be solid,” Briggs said of his performance, which tied him for the Gophers’ career record for shutouts with eight. “We had some good shots, and sooner or later one was going to go in.”
Briggs started Saturday’s contest after seeing little ice time recently due to injury. The sophomore started Minnesota’s last game, the third-place matchup at the WCHA Final Five last weekend, but had an up-and-down performance as the Gophers lost to North Dakota.
“We felt as coaches that he had to be in there,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia of Briggs, referencing his netminder’s two-year record, most of it as the Gophers’ number-one goalie.
The overtime finish echoed the 2002 NCAA title game, won 4-3 by Minnesota on Grant Potulny’s overtime goal to give the Gophers their first national championship since 1979. That fact was not lost on Lucia, who is used to seeing the Black Bears in big games.
“They’ve been playing their best hockey coming in,” Lucia said of Maine, “and when you have a goaltender like Jimmy Howard, my gosh.”
The Gophers’ victory came without help from their normally-productive power play, which went 0-for-9. Lucia partially traced that lack of success to a pair of missing players, which forced the Gophers to hunt for the right power-play combination all game long.
“I thought for us, it really showed not having [defenseman Alex] Goligoski and [forward Tyler] Hirsch on the power play,” Lucia said. Goligoski is out of action with a wrist injury, while Hirsch has been held out of the Gophers’ last two games after a bizarre postgame display last Friday at the Final Five.
Maine, meanwhile, was no more successful with the extra skater, going 0-for-4.
After even play early on, the momentum steadily drifted toward the Gophers, who piled up 23 shots to Maine’s 14 during the last two periods of regulation.
Howard was tested all game, but Briggs was forced to make saves on grade-A chances as well, including a wide-open Billy Ryan firing a point-blank shot into him early in the second period.
Howard made two spectacular saves in a row midway through the second. After Minnesota’s Gino Guyer picked off a cross-ice pass and found linemate Kris Chucko with a drop pass, Howard whipped his glove high to save the shot at the 8:08 mark of the period. Seconds later, Howard dove across the crease to stop a shot by Kaufmann, who had flung himself at a loose puck to Howard’s right.
Maine’s Jon Jankus hit the post at the opposite end a minute later, and Howard stopped Chucko again with 40 seconds remaining in the second, causing Chucko to rap his stick on the ice. That apparent frustration could have translated to the team as a whole, but Kaufmann said it was never an issue.
“It’s playoff hockey,” he said, “so you can’t get frustrated or try to do too much when it’s like that. … Finally, we got a chance to make a play.”
With three minutes left in regulation and Minnesota on its ninth power play of the game, the Gophers had what looked like their best chance of the game. But Howard flashed his glove again, robbing Gopher defenseman Derek Peltier from a few feet away after a cross-crease pass from Danny Irmen. Moments earlier, Mike Vannelli had hit the post behind Howard with the delayed penalty on.
“We had a really great chance with Peltier,” said Lucia. “I don’t know how [Howard] made that save.”
That save, on Minnesota’s 37th and last shot of regulation, set up overtime, leading to Kaufmann’s goal on the extra session’s first shot — though only after a steal behind Briggs by Maine’s Michel Leveille created a wide-open shot, which defenseman Chris Harrington slid to block.
The win sends Minnesota to the West Regional final, where it will meet the winner of the second semifinal between Cornell and Ohio State.
“I was really impressed with them,” said Whitehead of the Gophers. “They’re going to be a tough team to beat.”