MINNEAPOLIS — The cameras were ready, the script two-thirds written. One year after suffering one of college hockey’s biggest upsets of all time, Minnesota trailed Air Force in the third period of their NCAA West Regional semifinal.
But as the Falcons prepared their version of a story of triumph for the underdog, the Golden Gophers abruptly rewrote it with three goals in a four-minute span, finally holding off a lengthy Air Force six-on-five to win 4-3 at the Pepsi Center Saturday.
Minnesota, which was outworked for much of the game, trailed 3-1 after an AFA goal by Brett Nylander five minutes into the third. But the Gophers rallied thanks to what Air Force head coach Frank Serratore called “blue-collar hockey,” as well as some old-fashioned puck luck.
The pivotal moments came during Minnesota’s fourth and final power play, midway through the third. With Falcon blueliner Frank Schiavone off for crosschecking, AFA netminder Andrew Volkening (33 saves) made a spectacular stop on a point-blank redirection by Ryan Stoa, but a near-identical play with Kyle Okposo as triggerman got Stoa his 12th goal of the year at 11:50 to narrow the Falcons’ lead to 3-2.
“Had we not scored on that power play, I don’t know if would have won the game,” acknowledged Minnesota head coach Don Lucia.
Serratore agreed, saying, “Had we killed that penalty off, that would have demoralized them. They got that [power-play goal] and came back to life.”
True enough, that goal sparked the Gophers, who promptly scored twice more to turn the AFA lead into a Minnesota advantage.
With under six minutes remaining, defenseman Erik Johnson’s blast from the left point deflected through a pile of bodies and finally off Gopher freshman Jim O’Brien to tie the game at 3. And just over a minute later, Minnesota’s Mike Carman scored the winning goal, knocking the rebound of his own shot out of midair and into the net to put the Gophers ahead for the first time at 15:26.
“I cut to the middle, took a shot,” said Carman. “I was watching the puck the whole way, caught it between the hash marks, and was fortunate that it went in.”
“Hockey’s a game of momentum, and you get a big, powerful, skilled team like that that’s been frustrated the whole game, and they’re going to keep coming and coming,” said AFA captain Billy Devoney.
“Right after that goal went in, you could feel it on the bench,” Minnesota captain Mike Vannelli concurred.
Anyone who had the notion that the game could be a walkover for Minnesota was proved wrong early, as the Falcons showed they had plenty of skill and heart to match the Gophers.
“We want to be the most difficult team in the nation to play against, and I think we were tonight,” said Serratore.
After killing a Minnesota power play, Air Force scored the game’s first goal midway through the first period. Matt Fairchild pried the puck loose, and Jeff Hajner picked it up and fired it between the arm of Gopher netminder Kellen Briggs (28 saves) and the post at 9:55. The freshman’s 13th goal of the year made it 1-0 Falcons.
Consistently getting to loose pucks, the Falcons almost doubled the lead when on the power play, Mike Phillipich banged a rebound off the crossbar late in the frame.
Air Force continued to press early in the second period with an offensive push that culminated in Andrew Ramsey’s shot, which a spinning Briggs managed to stop before curling up in a ball on the ice.
The Gophers started to turn up the heat with some quality chances on the power play, but Volkening stood strong until after a failed two-on-one at the other end, Jay Barriball went in from neutral ice and fired a slapper from the left circle that slipped through the five-hole at 9:00 to knot the score at 1.
A critical sequence came with less than two minutes left in the second period, as Justin Bostrom and Tony Lucia went off seconds apart for interference calls. With the five-on-three, Air Force converted to retake the lead.
Off a Michael Mayra slapshot, the puck bounced free in the slot until squirting out from among three Gophers to an unmarked Ramsey, who deposited it into a wide-open net at 19:26 for his 23rd goal of year and a 2-1 edge heading into the third period.
Five minutes into the third, Nylander promptly made it 3-1 with his third goal of the year. Skating in from the left wing, the freshman center wrapped around the net and stuffed the puck past a diving Briggs to give AFA a two-goal edge that turned out not quite to be enough.
“I’m not sure there was a team with more pressure on it coming into a game than ours, and I know we felt it,” said Lucia.
The Gophers battled not only Air Force, but most of the crowd. Apart from the Falcons’ own fans at the Pepsi Center, partisans favoring Michigan and North Dakota, the regional’s other two teams, united behind AFA for one game, at least.
“They may not all have been Air Force fans, but they were rooting for us tonight,” said Ramsey.
Air Force ends its season at 19-16-5 after a successful year that included the Atlantic Hockey tournament title and its first-ever NCAA appearance.
Minnesota, which improved to 31-9-3, faces the winner of the North Dakota-Michigan semifinal on Sunday for the right to advance to the Frozen Four. Not only that, but the Gophers managed to put last season’s upset by Holy Cross behind them.
“After the game, we thought about it — or, I thought about it a little bit,” said Vannelli. “It’s just nice to know that the guys who come back here next year won’t have to hear it.”