Philadelphia – It was worth three celebrations.
Gophers senior defenseman Justin Holl caught the inside of the right post and found the net with six-tenths of a second left in Thursday night’s second Frozen Four semifinal. The Gophers dog-piled believing the shorthanded goal gave them a 2-1 victory over North Dakota at the Wells Fargo Center — celebration No. 1.
The goal was reviewed and confirmed — celebration No. 2.
The review also determined a split second remained on the clock and the puck was dropped one final time before the buzzer officially sounded — celebration No. 3 ensued and the Gophers (28-6-6) advanced to their first national championship in 11 years.
They will meet Union College in Saturday night’s finale.
“First time, I honestly didn’t know it went in until two seconds after ’cause there was a guy in front of me, so I didn’t see the goal at the time,” Holl said. “And everyone kind of jumped on me and I was dying at the bottom of the pile. Then it’s a pretty tense minute when they’re at the scorers’ table trying to figure out if it’s a goal or not and, when he comes out and gestures the goal signal, it’s a pretty amazing feeling. … It’s surreal right now, and we’re just happy to be moving on.”
It was Holl’s first goal of the season and was the result of the veteran’s awareness to just try to get a shot on the goal with time running out.
The Gophers weren’t even expecting a game-winner as time wound down. Mike Reilly had picked up a penalty with under two minutes to play. All the Gophers wanted was to kill the penalty and force overtime.
But as the Gophers have come to expect from their well-rounded offense, someone new came through when necessary. Kyle Rau and Brady Skjei had assists on Holl’s goal.
“We’re a really deep team, that’s one of our strengths for sure … anyone on any night can score,” Skjei said. “Every line can score and every defensemen can score. … Crazy things happen. It was unbelievable. I thought he was just going to chip it in deep and we were going to overtime, but he made a play.”
The historic rivalry lived up to its hype. The teams played 51 minutes of scoreless hockey before Sam Warning of the Gophers finally broke through. He scored on an assist from Rau, who finished with two points, at 10:51 of the third period. The lead was short-lived, though. North Dakota’s Connor Gaarder followed up his own shot and backhanded the puck in before it could settle on the ice.
There was no room for scoring throughout the first two periods. The few times North Dakota (25-14-3) and the Gophers sneaked by opposing defenses, they were continually stuffed.
Gophers goaltender Adam Wilcox finished with 36 saves and UND goalie Zane Gothberg with 26.
Very similar styles of play appeared to offset both teams’ offenses most of the game. Good speed on both ends made it difficult to create space and an advantage on transitions. Their defenses were quick to get back in the defensive zone and swarm around the goaltenders.
Gophers coach Don Lucia was right about the way he expected Thursday’s rivalry matchup to play out. The teams played very clean and composed, keeping the focus on what was at stake — a berth in the national championship.
The little jawing and shoving displayed took place in the opening minutes and quickly faded.
The upperclassmen’s message to the freshmen: Don’t settle for being at the Frozen Four.
The Gophers’ veterans were victim of a settling mind-set two years again in Tampa Bay and it showed in one-sided loss to Boston College in the national semifinals. A second trip to the Frozen Four in the past three seasons has been result of a much different approach.