PHILADELPHIA – Justin Holl is willing to do anything for the Gophers hockey team. And on Thursday night, that included being a very unlikely hero.
The senior defenseman hadn’t scored a goal all season, but his desperation shot as time ran out Thursday night gave the Gophers a 2-1 victory over North Dakota in the semifinals of the Frozen Four.
The effort advanced the Gophers into Saturday night’s championship game against Union at Wells Fargo Center, and brought one of the team’s unsung players into the spotlight.
“In any position he’s put in, he’s always got a smile on his face,” teammate Jake Parenteau said. “He’s here for our team and he’s a team-based player. As long as he’s helping the team out in any way possible, he’s happy.”
Holl, a 6-3, 195-pounder from Minnetonka, plays on the Gophers’ first set of defensemen, but his place on the blue line was in question at the start of the 2012-13 season. The Gophers brought in freshman standouts Mike Reilly and Brady Skjei to play on the back end, creating an overload of defensemen. Someone had to lose their spot.
Gophers coach Don Lucia and associate head coach Mike Guentzel, who oversees the defense, made the decision it would be Holl. His willing attitude and ability to skate earned him a job as a forward.
The change forced Holl into an unfamiliar position.
“It’s different for sure, because you have a career path you want to follow and that’s defense for me. When you talk about playing forward it kind of throws that off a little bit,” said Holl, who was taken by Chicago in the second round (54th overall) of the 2010 NHL draft. “But playing forward was a great experience for me and I really think I improved from it and became a better defenseman.”
It took him nearly half the season to feel comfortable with the transition, but the internal and technical growth he developed might have been what led Holl into Thursday’s game-winning sequence.
The move to jump into the play and take a shot in the final seconds was the forward in him, Holl said. He passed to Kyle Rau, followed him into the North Dakota zone, and fired a loose puck past North Dakota goalie Zane Gothberg with .6 seconds left.
He was mobbed on the ice and, after conducting postgame interviews, in the locker room by his teammates.
“Last year he wanted to do what’s best for the team and wanted to be in the lineup. That kind of shows you what kind of guy he is,” Guentzel said. “The reception last night for what he did tells you what the guys think of him, too.
“It’s hard for some guys [to change positions]. One, it’s the ability to do it, and two, it’s the ability to want to do it.”
Holl’s willingness to do what’s best for his team eventually paid off.
And his unselfishness along the way was rewarded Thursday with a goal few Gophers fans will forget.