Gophers win back-to-back hockey titles

by Adam Fink

Goaltender Travis Weber waited for his teammates to mob him. Captain Grant Potulny immediately went to the bench for his camera. Don Lucia pumped his fist in the air after embracing his assistant coaches.

And Minnesota’s men’s hockey team yelled and chanted together after claiming its second-straight national championship with a 5-1 win over New Hampshire on Saturday.

“The team played its best hockey at the end,” said Lucia, the Gophers’ fourth-year coach. “You have to want this with every fiber in your body. I really got on the team (Saturday) morning about wanting this.”

While the Gophers dominated the statistics, it took them time to put up numbers on the scoreboard en route to becoming the first school in 31 years to win back-to-back titles since Boston University in 1971-72.

It is Minnesota’s fifth championship in 11 title-game appearances.

For two periods against the Wildcats, “wants” didn’t translate into results.

Minnesota (28-8-9) owned the shot chart 30-16 and controlled the tempo heading into the second intermission, but the score was even at one.

Frustration built for Minnesota, and New Hampshire’s Patrick Foley said his team built its momentum on the Gophers’ inability to add numbers to the scoreboard.

The deadlock broke 8:14 into the final period of the season. Minnesota freshman Thomas Vanek attempted seven shots without finding the back of the net through two-thirds of the game, but his eighth was the magic one.

Vanek, who scored the game-winner in overtime against Michigan in the semifinals, came across from Wildcats’ goaltender Mike Ayers left to right side.

The Frozen Four’s Most Outstanding Player waited for defenseman Mick Mounsey, then Ayers, to commit.

And at the last possible second, Vanek’s quick hands rifled the puck into the net.

The only wait left was for his Gophers teammates to arrive and celebrate with him.

“Luck, I guess,” said Vanek, when asked to describe his second consecutive game-winning goal.

The goal had a demoralizing effect on the Wildcats. Over the next 5:20, Minnesota’s Jon Waibel scored on an assist by Vanek. Barry Tallackson notched a power-play goal, and any chance the title game would head into overtime for the sixth time in eight years vanished.

Most of the pro-New Hampshire crowd of 18,759 at Buffalo’s HSBC Arena sat in a quiet silence. Minnesota’s faithful rose to their feet chanting “back to back.”

“I told our guys to not give up,” said Ayers, who made 40 saves. “I thought we got timid after Vanek scored. With the heart of this team, I knew we could mount a comeback.”

New Hampshire never put together another solid rush, or gave Minnesota goaltender Weber any more chances to increase his save numbers.

Weber, named to the Frozen Four tournament team, saved 26 shots and established himself as a reliable backstop.

The final three minutes of the game was a time for Minnesota players to enjoy the moment and watch the longest season since 1991 end (45 games).

Matt DeMarchi, Nick Anthony and Chad Roberg, the team’s three seniors, wore large grins as their final game as a member of the Gophers program ended in jubilation.

And a season that began with trying to overcome the loss of four marquee names (Jordan Leopold, Johnny Pohl, Jeff Taffe and Adam Hauser) ended with the same results as last April.

“It hasn’t even sunk in yet,” freshman Chris Harrington said. “We faced an uphill battle all season, but we came out on top.”