PHILADELPHIA (GopherSports.com) – Justin Holl unleashed euphoric reactions across the entire state of Minnesota by scoring an unlikely shorthanded goal with less than a second remaining in Thursday night’s Frozen Four semifinal against long-time rival North Dakota to give Minnesota a 2-1 victory and a berth in the national championship game, the 12th in program history.
When the Gophers went down a man in a 1-1 game with 1:39 remaining, overtime seemed like a welcomed finish to regulation. For the first 90 seconds of its power play, North Dakota peppered Adam Wilcox with four shots but, as he had more than 30 times already on the night, Wilcox turned away each attempt. Then, with less than 10 seconds left on the clock, Minnesota won a draw in its own end and pushed the puck ahead. Kyle Rau, who was the catalyst of the Gopher offense the entire evening, attempted a shot from the left circle. His shot hit Jordan Schmaltz, deflecting the puck into Holl’s skates. Flashing crafty footwork, Holl kicked the puck to his stick and snuck a shot along the ice inside the far post, just beyond the left skate of North Dakota goaltender Zane Gothberg, triggering a flood of Maroon & Gold pouring off the bench as the final horn sounded. After official review, it was confirmed Holl scored with 0.6 seconds remaining on the game clock, an amazing – and improbable – finish to a hard-fought game fitting the legacy of the two teams’ historic rivalry.
Tonight was the fifth time the two schools have met in the NCAA Tournament. With its victory, Minnesota now holds a 3-2 advantage in that series.
Each goalie made a key save in the game’s opening minute, setting the stage for a battle between the two netminders. Wilcox punctuated a scoreless opening frame on a highlight-reel save with just over a minute remaining. A shot from Bryn Chyzyk hit bodies in front of the crease and dropped among several sets of skates. Colten St. Clair controlled the puck and, quickly spinning to face the net, fired a shot toward the right post but Wilcox instinctively shot out his left leg to kick the puck away.
Picking up in the second period where they left off in the first, the two goalies stole the show with outstanding saves. Rau forced Gothberg into a tough stop about six minutes into the period when he circled around the back of the net, swung out to the point and then down to the left circle before putting a strong wrister on goal. The rebound trickled out to the side of the net, where Rau took it, wrapped around again and found Brady Skjei for a clean shot from the top of the slot that Gothberg snagged with his glove to end the threat.
Wilcox, the Big Ten Goaltender of the Year and Richter Award finalist, had another chance to shine a few minutes later when a well-time change for North Dakota slipped behind the Gopher defensive coverage. Fresh off the bench, Chyzyk picked up the puck in transition at the Minnesota blue line and got off a good shot from the right circle that Wilcox steered away with his blocker.
Wilcox continued to come up with big saves to keep the game tied at zero, including consecutive saves on Michael Parks, who crashed the crease from Wilcox’s right and flipped a backhander from the edge of the crease that Wilcox stopped before Parks’ momentum drove Wilcox into the net, from where he reached out to deny a second backhand attempt from Parks on the rebound. It appeared Drake Caggiula had a chance to notch the game’s first goal on the ensuing scramble, but he was unable to solidly control the puck before it leaked out to the corner.
After 40 scoreless minutes, the teams took the ice for the third and grinded out play for the first 10 minutes. Around the midway point of the period, Rau took control by aggressively wrapping around the North Dakota net and trying to jam the puck past Gothberg. After the initial save, Rau tapped the rebound to Sam Warning, who cut across the front of the crease and snapped a shot inside the left post, putting Minnesota ahead 1-0 at 10:51.
After taking nearly 51 minutes to produce one goal, it took only 32 seconds to produce a second. Connor Gaarder charged toward Wilcox from the left side and flicked a backhand that hit the side of the net, but as Gaarder rushed past the net, he chipped the rebound back toward the crease, banking it off Wilcox and inside the near post to tie the game at one at 11:23.
Rau produced Minnesota’s best chance to reclaim the lead prior to Holl’s last-second goal, taking a Warning pass along the left side of the offensive zone with two minutes to play and maneuvering around both the defenseman and Gothberg. As he tried to reach back into the crease to tuck a shot into the wide-open net, Nick Mattson ripped the puck off his stick and cleared it from the crease, keeping the score tied at one and setting up the game’s unbelievable finish.
Minnesota looks to claim the sixth National Championship in program history against Union College at 6:30 p.m. CT this Saturday. The game will be televised on ESPN.