Gophers escape first round with a win

Carman’s wild game-winner sends Minnesota to the West Regional final tomorrow.

Mark Remme

DENVER, Colo. – With less than nine minutes remaining in Saturday’s NCAA West Regional semifinal, Minnesota’s men’s hockey team trailed 3-1 and looked like it was headed for an early playoff exit for the second straight year.

But something happened in front of 11,161 at the Pepsi Center. The Gophers woke up.

Minnesota scored three unanswered goals to end the contest, defeating Air Force 4-3 and advancing to Sunday’s regional final.

“(The Gophers) got desperate and got some breaks at the right time,” Falcons coach Frank Serratore said. “That’s what good teams do.”

Minnesota (31-9-3 overall) looked sluggish throughout most of the game, partially because it tried to play transition-style hockey against a quick and shifty Air Force team.

“For 50 minutes they tried to beat us with their speed and skill,” Serratore said.

But after a hard-nosed power play goal by sophomore winger Ryan Stoa at 11:50 of the third, which cut the Gophers’ deficit to 3-2, Minnesota began utilizing what was their strength all year long: working deep in the offensive zone and controlling game tempo.

It worked. Freshman center Jim O’Brien tied the score with a tip-in goal off a booming slapshot by freshman defenseman Erik Johnson.

And 1:21 later freshman Mike Carman scored on a wacky play in which his initial shot hit the glass, bounced back in front of the net and somehow found itself in the back of the goal.

Carman said the late scoring barrage wouldn’t have happened if Stoa didn’t score the power-play goal.

“It was huge,” Carman said. “Down 3-1 you’ve got to put the puck in the net on the power play.”

Minnesota made it hard for Air Force (19-16-5) to generate any pressure in the second half of the third period. The Gophers outshot the Falcons 13-5 in the final frame.

And the late-game heroics by Minnesota’s offense bailed senior goalie Kellen Briggs out of a disappointing performance. Briggs looked unready for the first goal he gave up and was out of position for Air Force’s third goal, a wrap-around effort by freshman center Brett Nylander.

“I’m sure he’d like to have the first one back,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “But he had to make some pretty good saves as well.”

Regardless, Minnesota’s win seemingly erased the shadow hanging over the team stemming from the 4-3 overtime loss to Holy Cross in last year’s regional semifinal in Grand Forks.

“We knew we needed to leave it all out there and play with no regrets,” senior defenseman Mike Vannelli said. “It’s nice to know returning guys won’t have to answer those questions.”

GAME SUMMARY

1st 2nd 3rd — T

Falcons 1 1 1 — 3

Gophers 0 1 3 — 4

Scoring:

1st: UMN: no scoring; AFA: Hajner-13 (Fairchild-5)

2nd: UMN: Barriball-19 (Vannelli-26); AFA: Ramsey-23 (Phillipich-28, Mayra-15)

3rd: UMN: Stoa-12 (Okposo-21, Kaufmann-6), O’Brien-7 (Johnson-20, Peltier-11), Carman-8 (Goligoski-29, Vannelli-27); AFA: Nylander-3 (Fairchild-6, Schiavone-7)

Goaltending

Briggs: (W 17-7-2)

Volkening: (L 4-2-0)

Overall Records

Minnesota: 31-9-3

Air Force: 19-16-5

Officials:

Scott Hansen (referee), Andy O’Brien (Linesman), Dave Kronenberg (Linesman)

A: 11,161