ST. PAUL, Minn. — With a berth in the WCHA championship hanging in the balance, Minnesota’s Mike Hoeffel scored his second goal of the game Friday night at 4:47 of overtime, sending the Golden Gophers past Colorado College 2-1 at the Xcel Energy Center Friday.
Hoeffel’s goal came on the sort of play that seemed to go against Minnesota earlier in the year. From the bottom of the left faceoff circle, Hoeffel fired toward the net, and the puck hit CC defender Nate Prosser and then ticked off netminder Richard Bachman before settling inside the goalmouth.
“I don’t know how, but it deflected into the net,” said the freshman of his winning play.
For a team that looked lost, particularly on offense, not long ago, the reversal has been slow and steady, but ultimately stunning.
“I think they’re on autopilot right now,” quipped CC head coach Scott Owens, “and I mean that in a good way.”
“This team never ceases to amaze me right now,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. “It starts with the goaltender; he’s been brilliant, and we’re finding ways to win.”
“The goaltender,” of course, was once again freshman Alex Kangas, who made 37 saves to help stifle the CC offense. The Tigers paid the rookie backstop their compliments accordingly.
“He’s just a good goalie,” said CC’s Jack Hillen. “He moves well laterally, and when he moves he doesn’t open a lot up.”
“He’s in a zone right now,” said Owens of Kangas. “He looks big in the net, he moves well and he’s got things going.”
Hoeffel’s OT tally not only touched off a furious celebration on the ice and in the overwhelmingly pro-Minnesota crowd, it assured the Golden Gophers of an at-large berth, likely a No. 3 seed, in the NCAA tournament, even if Minnesota fails to capture the Broadmoor Trophy on Saturday.
“We didn’t back into this NCAA tournament,” said Lucia, whose Gophers won a first-round road series against Minnesota State before beating St. Cloud State Thursday night in St. Paul. “We did it the hard way.”
Bachman (33 saves), the newly-anointed WCHA Player of the Year, was tested early. Minutes into the first period, Friday’s hero, Mike Howe, made a bid with a one-timer from the left side, but the CC netminder was equal to the task. With six minutes to go in the first, Bachman stoned Justin Bostrom on a one-on-one with nary a defender in sight.
Despite those chances, play tilted a bit toward CC in the first period. Though Minnesota netminder Alex Kangas didn’t have to make spectacular stops, shots after 20 minutes favored the Tigers by a deceptive 20-9.
“I think 15 of them were from outside,” said Kangas of the frequent but relatively harmless CC shots.
“A lot of our shots were butterflies into his mitt,” agreed Hillen. “I put a couple up there for him.”
Andreas Vlassapoulous put the Tigers in front to open the second, scoring from point-blank range off a bounce with assists from Hillen and Nate Prosser at :39.
However, Hoeffel promptly knotted it up for Minnesota at 1:38 of the second, taking a short pass from Jay Barriball and one-timing a shot from the high slot past Bachman high to the glove side. Lucia pointed to that play as the game’s most important moment.
“We didn’t want to fall behind any further, and he answered right away,” said Lucia.
“It hurt us that they came back and scored right away,” agreed Hillen.
Three penalties in a span of 1:05 followed, but no scoring resulted, despite two Minnesota power plays and a two-on-one shorthanded rush by CC. For the rest of the period, the ice slowly tilted back in Minnesota’s favor, with the Gophers outshooting the Tigers 13-9 in the middle frame.
Bill Sweatt had a chance to win it for the Tigers in the final minute of regulation, but his backhander from the right side of the slot was knocked down by Kangas to send the teams to overtime, setting up Hoeffel’s eventual score and the Gophers’ shot at defending their playoff championship.
“We’re playing our best hockey at the right time, right now,” said the laconic Kangas.
The Gophers’ many overtime games — including four in the past eight days — don’t seem to be affecting their play, to the wonder of their opponents.
“Everybody keeps waiting for them to run out of gas, and I don’t think it’s going to be this weekend,” said Owens.
Minnesota will play Denver, a 3-1 winner over North Dakota earlier Friday, in the WCHA title game Saturday at 7:07 p.m. CT. Colorado College, meanwhile, will face North Dakota in the consolation at 2:07 p.m., a game which could decide whether CC or UND gets a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs.