Thursday, April 10, 2014

Holl of a finish: Buzzer-beater sends Minnesota to national title game against Union

Courtesy of Paige Ozaroski
Philadelphia, PA -- Justin Holl scored his first goal of the season on Thursday night, and it was one Hell of a time to do it.

On the penalty kill and facing an overtime to decide who would face Union in Saturday's national championship game, Holl beat Zane Gothberg with six-tenths of a second remaining in regulation, and the Minnesota Golden Gophers claimed a 2-1 victory over the North Dakota Fighting Sioux in Thursday's late semifinal. 

Sam Warning opened the scoring with 9:09 left in the contest, but Conor Gaarder squared things only 32 seconds later.

A hooking call to the Gophers' Connor Reilly with 1:39 on the clock had Minnesota on the defensive, but the former No. 1 team in the country ended up advancing on Holl's first goal since March 8, 2013 against Bemidji State.

“There’s no better time for Justin to score his first than tonight,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. “But that’s our team. We haven’t relied on any one guy. A new guy has to step forward every night.”

It came thanks to a screen from Seth Ambroz, who backed in UND forward Stephane Pattyn and captain Dillon Simpson enough to let a low shot go that ticked off the right post and in to send the Big Ten regular-season winners to their first NCAA final since 2003.  Kyle Rau began the rush from a faceoff win in his own end, with Holl kicking the puck out of his skates just prior to the winning strike.

“I think momentum was kind of, I guess you could say, in our hands,” Pattyn mused. “A couple of close calls, a couple of good saves by their goalie, and the puck going the other way, just hit a couple of skates, hit a couple of sticks, and it was in the back of our net. There’s not much more I could say.”

Minnesota (28-6-6) faces off against Union, a 5-4 winner over Boston College, in Saturday's finale for the college hockey season. North Dakota (25-14-3) came up short in its first Frozen Four bid since 2008.

Gothberg stopped 26 shots in the painful defeat, but drew praise from his boss.

"I think Zane was very good for our hockey team. Along the way, you need a goaltender to win the game. I think if you look back 10 days, I thought against Ferris State in the third period, he was a difference maker for us. He did his job, got us to overtime," said UND head coach Dave Hakstol, who completed his 10th season. I have a lot of confidence in Zane, and it doesn't just come from performance. Guys watch him prepare and that's good leadership on his part."

If not for the final marker, it would have been the second straight season a team advanced to the championship with an OT strike. Yale's Andrew Miller lit the lamp at 6:59 of the extra session to beat UMass-Lowell last year in Pittsburgh, and the Bulldogs eventually beat Quinnipiac.

The stakes between these Upper Midwest neighbors haven't been higher since Herb Brooks' Minnesota club won the last of its three titles in the 70s, taking out Gino Gasparini's North Dakota by a 4-3 count in 1979 at the Olympia in Detroit.

It showed in the play over the first two scoreless periods, defined by fits of close checking and bursts of brilliant offense and goaltending.

Adam Wilcox, who stopped 36 shots and put himself light years above the competition for the Mike Richter Award as the nation's top goalie, made a career-defining save on Colten St. Clair late in the first period, channeling Dominik Hasek to do a forward snow angels and grab his shot in close with the splits. 

Both he and Gothberg held the fort in the second frame, and it looked like the first-ever scoreless deadlock to head to overtime in semifinals history was on tap until both clubs awoke from their slumber in the space of one shift.

Warning was behind a goalmouth scramble and managed to take a Rau pass and lift a shot past Gothberg and inside the left post. Rau, the club's leading scorer, ended up with two assists on the evening.

On the ensuing shift, Wilcox failed to cover enough of the left post as Gaarder squeezed off a weak shot, and then made a successful sweep of the rebound with 8:37 remaining. For the native of the Twin Cities, it showed fortitude he first displayed when poking home the double-overtime winner against Ferris State to take the Midwest Regional.

"They put a lot of pressure on us and it was really tough at times. It seemed like every time they had a shot blocked, they'd get it back and throw a couple more towards the net," Wilcox noted. "But our defense did a great job blocking shots, boxing out, one guy took a shot in the ear. We really sold out, cut off angles, tying guys up at the point. We did a great job of weathering the storm at times tonight."

Notes: Minnesota has won its last two NCAA playoff appearances against North Dakota, including a 5-2 decision in the West Regional final two years ago after losing the two previous matchups in the 2005 and 2007 West Regionals ... Though there are no official records kept, it is believed that Holl's goal is the latest game-winner in Frozen Four history ... Minnesota and Union have played only three times previously, and all during the in-season Mariucci Classic, with the Dutchmen taking a 3-2 OT decision on Dec. 31, 2010.
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