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Potulny an unlikely hero in victory

It’s hard to believe Grant Potulny is only a sophomore.

After all, few players in the rich history of Minnesota hockey can match the impact of the rugged winger. In only two seasons, Potulny lifted the school’s 13-year ban on recruiting only Minnesota-born players, led the nation in power-play goals and earned assistant captain honors from his teammates.

For good measure, Potulny scored the Gophers’ first two goals in Thursday’s 3-2 win over Michigan, sending Minnesota to the NCAA championship game Saturday versus Maine.

“(The goals) felt awesome,” said Potulny, a Grand Forks, N.D., native. “All year long I’ve struggled to put the puck in the net, but tonight I got good chances and made the most of them.”

Potulny’s 33 points this season equal his first-year numbers, but his 14 goals are eight off his rookie pace. His gaudy power-play numbers are also down, from a nation-leading 16 last season to eight.

But such statistics were far from Potulny’s mind Thursday, as he opted to relish the win, which puts his team in the title game.

“No one remembers goals and assists,” he said. “What they remember is whether you played for a national champion.”

In the Frozen Four semifinal game against Michigan, Potulny’s grit and determination are reflected in the scoring column. However, teammates value Potulny’s less-visible contributions just as much. Brought in by coach Don Lucia for his size (6-foot-2, 196 pounds), age (22) and leadership, Potulny’s goals are simply gravy – and rarely a thing of beauty.

“I’m not going to skate down the rink and razzle-dazzle anyone,” Potulny said. “My role is to bang guys, dig the puck out and get it to the skilled guys.”

Potulny’s first goal snuggly fit his profile as Minnesota’s premier garbage man. A failed Michigan clearing attempt hit the Gophers’ Jeff Taffe on the skate and stopped just outside the crease. Potulny fought off a defender, lunged toward the puck and put it past an outstretched Josh Blackburn at 4:20 of the first period.

The goal ignited a crowd of 19,234 at the Xcel Energy Center and gave the Gophers a lift.

On his second tally, Potulny roamed the goalmouth on a Minnesota power play in the second period and deflected a Jordan Leopold shot under Blackburn. The pair of goals equaled Potulny’s production in last year’s overtime loss to Maine in the NCAA tournament’s first round.

The tip-in, which accounted for many of his goals last season, drew rave reviews from former Minnesota assistant coach John Hill. Now coaching at Alaska-Anchorage, Hill praised Potulny’s work in front of the net.

“Grant is the best player in the WCHA at tipping shots past goaltenders,” Hill said. “He is exceptionally skilled at deflecting shots and stuffing rebounds.”

Now on the docket for Minnesota is Maine, the team that knocked the Gophers from the post-season one year ago. The Bears advanced to the title game after pasting New Hampshire 7-2 in Thursday’s first semifinal game.

Assistant captain Potulny must again lead his team’s charge into what should be a tight, physical hockey game. Whether he scores or not, Potulny will resume his role as the blue-collar Gopher.

“They play hard, gritty and leave it all out there,” he said.

Sounds like Grant Potulny’s kind of team.

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