PHILADELPHIA – Wait! Hold everything!
The puck’s in the net, the horn is going off, the scoreboard clock says 00:00, what in the heck just happened?
Even the hero couldn’t believe the magic he created in a blink of the eye.
“I was like, ‘Did that really happen?’ ” Justin Holl said.
Amazingly, it did, and now the Gophers get to play for the national championship Saturday night.
Did that really happen? A shorthanded goal that just barely beat the buzzer before overtime?
“Oh my gosh,” senior Nate Condon said.
Exactly. Those three words provide the perfect description of the final moment of the 291st meeting between the Gophers and their bitter rival North Dakota in the national semifinals at Wells Fargo Center on Thursday night.
A tight, tense game fittingly came down to a blocked shot, a perfect bounce and a dagger by Holl with less than a second remaining. Holl’s hurried shot sailed past North Dakota goalie Zane Gothberg officially with sixth-tenths of a second left to give the Gophers a 2-1 victory and leave this wonderful rivalry with another indelible memory.
“To have a game like that on this stage is unbelievable,” Condon said.
So, too, is the fact that Holl had not scored a goal all season. Not one, until he scored a goal that will etch his name in Gophers hockey lore.
“I was saving it,” he said, deadpan. “All year.”
The Gophers talked in the locker room before the game about the need for their seniors to rise to the occasion, to lead the way. A few players mentioned that Holl was due to score his first goal.
“It’s funny how it works like that,” Condon said.
Everything had to align for it to happen. The Gophers gained control of the puck on the penalty kill with about nine seconds left. Tick, tick, tick.
Skating down the left wing, Kyle Rau fired a shot, but the puck hit North Dakota’s Jordan Schmaltz’s skate almost immediately. Tick, tick, tick.
The puck ricocheted right to Holl. Tick, tick, tick.
“I figured that I didn’t have much time left so I might as well throw it on goal,” he said.
Shoots, scores, bedlam.
“Kind of surreal,” Holl said.
Whether it was fate, destiny or a gift from the hockey gods, the NCAA’s Frozen Four delivered a dream scenario — long-standing rivals back nose-to-nose after a forced separation by the greed of conference realignment. What we witnessed in the atmosphere and action represented the best of what college sports offer.
This one was as close as close can get. Scoreless after one period. Scoreless after two periods. Neither team was able to crack a pair of brick-wall goalies, Gothberg and the Gophers’ Adam Wilcox.
The two teams battled for every inch of ice, every loose puck. Players fought and scrapped and traded extra shoves after the whistle. They dived to block shots. Neither was willing to back down. It was passionate, gut-check hockey.
North Dakota did everything right. The Gophers were just a split-second better.
Both teams generated scoring chances, but the goalies engaged in a wonderful duel to stymie the offenses. Wilcox’s finest moment came in the final minute of the first period when he made a sprawling kick save to rob Colten St. Clair.
Gothberg responded in kind with several bang-bang saves in the second period, even losing his mask during one flurry.
“It was a roller-coaster,” Wilcox said.
These two teams just seem to bring out the best in each other. It’s been that way for decades. The fact that so much was at stake this time only increased the drama and made their emotions particularly raw afterward.
“I can’t say that I don’t like ending North Dakota’s season,” Condon said. “It makes it a little extra special because they are that close and they are our rivals.”
They’ve had some real doozies over the years, but No. 291 will stand the test of time because of its finish. Down to his last second, Justin Holl chose the only option available. He fired the puck toward the net and hoped for the best.
And something crazy happened.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org