Grant Potulny went into Minnesota’s locker room after the Gophers defeated Michigan 3-2 in overtime of the NCAA Frozen Four semifinals and let out a huge sigh of relief.
Only a few moments earlier Thursday night, his teammate Thomas Vanek came around the net at the 8:55 mark of overtime and beat goaltender Al Montoya and the Wolverines with a slap shot.
The game wasn’t impressive by any stretch of the imagination, but the defending national champions overcame nerves, a nearly mute offense and a one-goal deficit heading into the third period to earn a spot in its second consecutive title game.
The Gophers (27-8-9) face New Hampshire, a 3-2 winner over Cornell earlier in the day, for the title Saturday at 6 p.m. Boston University was the last team to repeat as national champions, doing so in 1971-72.
“Hopefully we got a game like this out of our system,” Potulny said. “I am glad this one is done. It shows how resilient we can be and how dangerous we are.
“Tom probably has sore shoulders right now because he has been carrying this team.”
But Vanek, along with the entire Minnesota offense, was quiet for two periods.
In overtime, however, Vanek showed the 18,702 in attendance at the HSBC Arena in Buffalo why he is the Gophers greatest offensive threat.
Vanek received the puck behind Michigan’s net, came around to Montoya’s right side and quickly rifled a slap shot that hit inside the left skate of the Wolverines netminder for the game-winning goal.
“I knew if I could get a step on him in one direction I could put it in,” said Vanek, who also notched overtime winners this season against Boston College on Dec. 28 and Minnesota State-Mankato on Mar. 20.
The freshman from Graz, Austria, notched his team-leading 30th goal of the season, as well as his 16th tally coming in either the third period or overtime.
In the first 20 minutes, it didn’t look like Minnesota would even get to an extra period. Gophers coach Don Lucia noticed in the pregame that Minnesota seemed almost too calm and showed no signs of nervousness.
But by the end of the first period, it was evident the team did a good job hiding the emotions from Lucia.
The Gophers got outshot in the first period 15-5, and didn’t even attempt a shot in the final 13 minutes of the opening stanza. A stellar performance by Gophers goaltender Travis Weber (14 saves) kept Minnesota’s lackadaisical performance on offense and defense from resulting in more than a 1-0 deficit.
“We really needed to regroup after that,” forward Barry Tallackson said. “We knew we had taken their best shot and coach just told us to relax.”
Minnesota and Michigan (30-10-3) traded goals in the second period from Troy Riddle and the Wolverines Jed Ortmeyer.
But momentum shifted early in the third period when Gino Guyer rotated to the middle of the ice on his first shift of the period and scored on Tallackson’s centering pass.
“After that we were on our heels,” Ortmeyer said.
Michigan almost regained control, then lost it to instant replay. At 10:09 of the period, the Wolverines appeared to score as they clustered around the net. But after a five-minute review it was determined the referee’s whistle blew before the puck crossed under Weber’s legs.
“I guess the refs lost sight of the puck,” Ortmeyer said. “It was a tough call to make and it hurt us.”
That left the game tied and set up Vanek’s heroics.
Heading into the title game against the Wildcats, Minnesota feels fortunate to be playing. With the anxiety gone and their defense stepping up to the challenge, the Gophers believe they will be ready to play a complete 60-minute affair this weekend.
In addition, the Gophers know if they don’t play fundamentally -solid checks, sharp passes and together as a team – they will not win.
“I would have been disappointed if we didn’t finish the game playing well, win or lose,” Lucia said. “But we played strong at the end and I expect that to carry into Saturday.”
ï Minnesota and New Hampshire met earlier this season in Durham, N.H. The first game ended in a 5-5 tie on Oct. 18 while the Wildcats won 3-1 the following night.