For Minnesota, the script was eerily familiar.
Coming off an overtime win against Maine in the semifinals, the Gophers again faced a dominant defensive team and a brick wall for an opposing goaltender in the West Regional final against Cornell at Mariucci Arena.
And just like the day before, Minnesota waited until a fourth period to settle matters. After skating to a draw with the Big Red in regulation, the Gophers got a goal in overtime from Barry Tallackson to take a 2-1 win and the final berth in the 2005 Frozen Four.
The Minnesota win also made NCAA history by setting up the first-ever single-conference Frozen Four. All four regional finals this weekend were won by WCHA teams.
Four-plus minutes into the extra session, Minnesota’s Mike Howe dug a puck out along the boards and spotted Tallackson alone in front after a line change. Tallackson did the rest, firing a low shot that Big Red netminder David McKee stopped but couldn’t control, leaving the puck loose for Tallackson’s second attempt, which the senior fired home at 4:31 to send Minnesota to Columbus.
“Mike Howe made a nice play and got it out of the corner and got it to me, and I just made the shot,” said Tallackson.
“With Mike stepping out of the corner, it was just kind of a quick play,” said Gopher coach Don Lucia. “And that’s the only way you’re going to beat a goaltender like that.”
“They’ve got great players, and they made a great play at the end to win,” said Cornell coach Mike Schafer.
In net for Minnesota, Kellen Briggs quietly made 17 saves for a weekend total of 42 stops on 43 opposing shots, earning the sophomore Most Outstanding Player honors for the regional.
Minnesota (28-14-1) had dominated the first two periods territorially and on the shot chart, but had only a 1-1 tie to show for it heading into the third period, when Cornell (27-5-3) showed its mettle, asserting itself on offense as the smaller Gophers seemed to wear down.
“We talked, going into overtime, that we needed to score early, because some of our guys were getting tired,” said Lucia.
During regulation, Minnesota put 34 shots on McKee, but only got one past the Hobey Baker Memorial Award finalist. Meanwhile, up to that point the Big Red managed 15 shots on Briggs, though eight of those came in the third period as Cornell seemed to gain strength.
“We get stronger as the game goes on,” said McKee, who eventually stopped 37 shots. “Going into the overtime we were very confident.”
So, however, were the Gophers, coming off the same experience Friday.
“Last night’s win over Maine was pretty intense. … Coming into the locker room [after regulation Sunday], we knew we had it,” said Tallackson.
A rash of Cornell infractions early in the game kept the nation’s best penalty-kill busy. Neither team scored on the power play — Minnesota was 0-for-6, Cornell 0-for-3 for the game — but the Big Red made special teams count for the first goal of the game.
After a penalty on Cornell’s Ryan O’Byrne midway through the second period, a shot attempt by Minnesota’s Ryan Potulny in the slot went awry, leading to a three-on-one shorthanded break for Cornell.
Skating up the middle, Daniel Pegoraro moved the puck to his right for Mitch Carefoot, who had started the play back in the opposing end. Carefoot then stunned the overwhelmingly pro-Minnesota crowd by lifting his shot into the upper right corner of the half-open net at 13:02 for a 1-0 Big Red lead.
“The puck just popped up to me in the slot,” said Carefoot. “I had to make a pass to Pegoraro, who’s a much faster skater than I am.”
But Minnesota responded with its first goal, coming on its 21st shot on net of the game. Less than two minutes after Carefoot’s goal, Gopher Garrett Smaagaard — operating behind the Cornell net — hit a cutting Andy Sertich with a short pass just above the goal line. Sertich whipped a backhander under McKee to tie the game at 1.
Another Cornell penalty ensued, but on its sixth attempt of the game, the Minnesota power play was unsuccessful against the Big Red’s tight four-man box, which frustrated the Gophers’ attempts to get the puck into the slot area. Still, the Gopher power play did generate scoring chances, which it had largely failed to do against Maine.
“I thought we looked much better on the power play,” said Lucia.
Shots on goal in the second period favored Minnesota, 12-4, after the Gophers had racked up a 14-3 advantage in the first.
Early in the third, Minnesota kept the heat on, but McKee and the Cornell defense again stifled Minnesota’s scoring chances. Shortly, the momentum began to turn, with Cornell looking fresher than the Gophers, beating the regional hosts to loose pucks and generating possession time in the offensive end much of the period.
“The strength of our hockey team all year was to figure out the other team,” said Schafer. “I thought we were able to take away the middle of the ice as the game went on.”
That strength took a while to show, as the Gophers dominated territorially in the opening minutes. Minnesota notched the game’s first seven shots on goal, with Cornell’s first coming six minutes in. Cornell gave Minnesota three power plays in the first period, with the best scoring chance a slapshot off the stick of Chris Harrington that rang off the left post behind McKee late in the frame.
“It seemed like every time I turned around we were in the penalty box,” said Schafer.
In the end, the loss was Cornell’s first in 20 games, ending the nation’s longest unbeaten streak and the Big Red’s season.
“We haven’t lost a game in two and a half months, and it was a tough way to have a loss,” said Schafer.
With the win, Minnesota moves on to face North Dakota in a national semifinal on Thursday, April 7. The other semifinal at the Frozen Four will pit Colorado College against Denver. Those four teams were also the four participants in the WCHA semifinals one week ago.
“We’re looking forward to getting some time off, and playing in the Final Five again,” quipped Lucia.