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Gophers stun North Dakota with game-winner in final second

By Tim Leighton

St. Paul Pioneer Press

PHILADELPHIA -- It typically is just a 300-mile trip when Minnesota and North Dakota play each other in men’s hockey. It’s a trip they have made 290 times over 84 years in what is arguably the most storied rivalry in college hockey.

Game No. 291 took place at a destination four times that distance, but the high intensity and talent level that has become a trademark in the series didn’t get lost along the way.

And to boot, it just might have been the best of the bunch.

Minnesota added to its narrow supremacy over North Dakota with a stunning 2-1 victory in the semifinals of the Frozen Four in front of 17,311 at Wells Fargo Center.

With overtime eminent, senior defenseman Justin Holl picked an ideal time to score his first goal of the season -- with 0.6 of a second remaining in regulation to lift the top-ranked Gophers (28-6-6) into Saturday’s championship game against Union College (31-6-4).

Minnesota is seeking its sixth national title. Union is in the title game for the first time.

Holl’s short-handed goal, off a shot that clanged in off the right post, was reviewed, but replays clearly revealed it had crossed the goal line with time left in regulation.

“It was another boring Minnesota-North Dakota game,’’ Gophers coach Don Lucia deadpanned afterward.

Holl just shrugged his shoulders at the jaw-dropping finish.

“Most of us were just focused on killing the penalty and getting to OT,’’ he said. “I thought I might as well dump it in.’’

Said sophomore goalie Adam Wilcox: “To get a goal, a short-handed one at that, with under a second remaining, man, you can’t write a better script than that.’’

Wilcox had his signature all over this victory by making 36 saves, 12 in each period.

North Dakota gave Minnesota fits throughout by outworking the Gophers at times to create territorial dominance and countless shots. But, Wilcox said, his teammates left him open lanes in which to see those shots.

“We played to win, but didn’t play with a lot of risk,’’ he said. “I thought we played a pretty safe game. The chances that we gave them were from us missing the net on the other end. The guys did a nice job of playing from our house out. That is a big reason why we held them to one goal.’’

Still, Wilcox was pressed into athletic saves and head’s up pouncing on the loose puck, to give the Gophers a chance to win their sixth national championship.

“With Adam back there, you almost get too confident,’’ Hudson Fasching said. “We probably gave up too many chances, but he was there to bail us out.’’

North Dakota finished the season 25-14-3.

“I think we surprised a lot of people,’’ North Dakota’s Nick Mattson said. “No one really thought we were going to be here except for the guys in our room.’’

The victory game Minnesota a 146-130-15 edge in the series.

This was the first meeting this season between the teams, longtime rivals in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

Minnesota joined the Big Ten Conference, and North Dakota left the WCHA for the new Northern Collegiate Hockey Conference.

Sam Warning scored the game’s elusive first goal midway through the third period on a backhand off an assist from Kyle Rau, who was a dominant force on both ends of the ice.

In such a tight game, that goal could have been the winner, but North Dakota didn’t think so.

North Dakota answered just more than two minutes later on a backhand shot by Connor Gaarder that trickled past Wilcox. It was an odd goal in that Wilcox had made stellar, athletic saves throughout, but he couldn’t locate Gaarder’s shot.

A few moments earlier, North Dakota was skating circles around the Gophers, peppering Wilcox with an array of shots, but Minnesota was able to do just enough to survive and also catch a break with a TV timeout.

North Dakota’s Zane Gothberg, a former high school standout at Thief River Falls, made 26 saves and held the Gophers scoreless through two periods for the first time all season.

“The longer the game stretches on, the more nervous you get,’’ Gophers senior captain Nate Condon said. “We are known for having a great offense. Most of the time, it doesn’t take us 19:59 of a period to score.’’

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