After Minnesota scored its fourth goal with 6:46 remaining in the game, UNH called a timeout to try and take its championship hopes off life support. Over to the bench skated goaltender Mike Ayers, who took over his goalie mask and started to exhort his teammates.
“There were six-and-a-half minutes to go in the national championship game and I didn’t want my team to give up,” Ayers said. “It would have been a real shame if we went out giving up.”
Ayers seemed to have earned the right. Minnesota goalie Travis Weber made the All-Tournament Team, but through two periods Ayers most likely had that honor. He stopped 29 of 30 Gopher shots and put UNH in an position to win in the third period because of a series of spectacular second-period saves.
Ayers robbed Matt Koalska on a two-on-one, gloving a point-blank one-timer at 15:27. Ten seconds later, Jon Waibel had a mini-breakaway that Ayers snuffed with his right pad. He was forced to make another spectacular glove save two minutes after that.
When New Hampshire went on the power play with 1:21 left in the second period, the shots stood 30-15, yet the game was 1-1. It remained so because with 5.6 seconds to go in the frame, Barry Tallackson hit the post on another Minnesota breakaway.
“When Barry hit the pipe, I was thinking, ‘Oh boy, this is not meant to be,'” said Minnesota coach Don Lucia. “But our kids kept coming.”
Eventually it took tournament Most Outstanding Player Thomas Vanek’s great move on a two-on-one rush in the third period to solve Ayers and prevent him from stealing a national championship for the Wildcats. Once Vanek scored, the Wildcats were on their heels and there was little the netminder could do on the next two Gopher goals.
Another Freshman In The Clutch
A week after freshman Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to a national championship, Minnesota rode Vanek to its title. The freshman scored the game winner in both Gopher Frozen Four games.
Since arriving in October, he has been the Gopher go-to guy. Seventeen of his 31 goals have come in either the third period or overtime. He is just the fourth freshman in NCAA history to win the MOP.
“He’s a difference-maker,” Lucia said of his star. “He’s been a leader offensively. He’s not cocky, guys are happy for him because they know it’s not like it’s the ‘Thomas Vanek Show.'”
After the game, Vanek was particularly excited because it was his first championship at any level of hockey.
“This championship was the best thing I’ve ever done,” Vanek said, “to come to Minnesota and win my first title. Hopefully there will be more to come.”
The tea leaves pointed towards a UNH victory. One of its all-time greats, Jason Krog, scored a key goal to elevate the Anaheim Mighty Ducks over the Detroit Red Wings in their NHL playoff game Saturday.
Krog was the leader of the 1999 Wildcat team that lost in the finals to Maine. Speaking of which, Minnesota had 16 shots on goal in the first period. The last team to send 16 pucks on net in the opening frame of a final was New Hampshire, in ’99.
Minnesota coach Don Lucia probably stated the mood in the UNH locker room better than any Wildcat could muster after the game.
“Second place is for the birds,” he said. “I told my team that at the end of the game you can either be here on the podium talking about what a great season you had, or you can be national champions. It’s about winning.”
There were two victory celebrations for the Golden Gophers. The first one was for the benefit of the ESPN cameras so they could have some celebration footage before cutting away to Baseball Tonight.
NCAA selection committee chair Ian McCaw handed the Gophers the NCAA trophy and the team passed it around. Someone ran and got the Gatorade bucket and bathed Lucia. The traditional postgame handshake was delayed so reporters could interview key Gophers on the ice.
Then, when the cameras went off the air, the trophy was taken away from the players, and represented to them, properly. All the while, the forlorn Wildcats had to stand on the blue line, watching Minnesota’s euphoria drag on into the night.
Steve Piotrowski refereed both of Minnesota national championship victories. It was the first time an official oversaw back-to-back finals since Frank Cole did it in 1995-96 … This was the first final that was tied 1-1 after two periods of play … The margin of victory was the highest since Boston University defeated Maine, 6-2 in 1995.
F Thomas Vanek, Minnesota
F Steve Saviano, New Hampshire
F Nathan Martz, New Hampshire
D Matt DeMarchi, Minnesota
D Paul Martin, Minnesota
G Travis Weber, Minnesota
Most Outstanding Player: Vanek