Late collapse gives men’s hockey split at Duluth

Adam Fink

JDULUTH, Minn., –
justin Johnson and Chris Harrington laid motionless in front of Minnesota’s net, shocked at the turn of events Saturday night.

Minnesota’s men’s hockey goaltender and defenseman had both made unsuccessful diving attempts to prevent the tying goal in the final moments.

But Minnesota-Duluth’s captain Jon Francisco tied the score at four with only 11 seconds remaining, sending the sellout crowd of 5,409 at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center into frenzy.

One minute into overtime, Francisco slammed home the game winner from just inside the blue line.

This marked the 16th goal Minnesota has allowed in the final two minutes of a period, including seven in the final minute of a game.

“We go brain-dead at the end of games,” captain Grant Potulny said.

Minnesota left with a split due to its 5-4 comeback win Friday, but Saturday’s 5-4 loss overshadowed an all-around solid effort from the Gophers.

“We have to learn how to close out games,” coach Don Lucia said. “Guys are disappointed. There are no positives in a loss like this.”

The loss ended a 10-game stretch where the Gophers (18-8-7, 13-6-5 WCHA) were 7-1-2. In addition, the team lost its first WCHA series finale game since Dec. 8, 2001 (a span of 22 games).

More importantly, a win Saturday would have clinched home ice for Minnesota in the WCHA playoffs. Instead, the fifth-place Bulldogs (16-12-4, 12-9-3) stayed in the race to play host.

Despite a rare Saturday night loss, Lucia doesn’t see the weekend as a step back. Minnesota earned two points and holds a three-point lead over fourth-place North Dakota, who was swept at Minnesota State-Mankato.

“We control our own destiny,” Lucia said. “We left (Duluth) ahead of them in the standings. We don’t need to count on anyone else but ourselves.”

Things started to take a turn for the worse entering the third period Saturday night.

Minnesota held a 3-1 lead behind goals from Garrett Smaagaard, Gino Guyer and Tyler Hirsch.

The Bulldogs scored 1:47 into the period and the Gophers were on their heels for the rest of the way.

Johnson, who made 27 saves, made four clutch stops in the final four minutes before allowing the tying goal.

“No way should they be getting shots at the end like that,” Hirsch said. “I feel bad for J.J. We didn’t help him.”

Minnesota’s third-period struggles contradicted Friday’s third-period success.

The Gophers trailed 4-2 one-fourth of the way through the final 20 minutes – until Minnesota’s top line of Thomas Vanek, Matt Koalska and Troy Riddle took over the game.

Between nifty passing from Koalska (three assists), Riddle tallied the game-tying goal, and Vanek maneuvered through the defense for the game-winner at 16:29.

Vanek finished the weekend with two goals and two assists, putting him one point shy of the 50-mark barrier.

Only four games remain before the WCHA playoffs and Minnesota hopes this is the final time the team falters at the end of the game.

“It might be a godsend,” Potulny said. “It will change the way we look at things and not take anything for granted.”

Adam Fink covers men’s hockey and welcomes

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