Gophers, Union meet for national title with little in common

  • Article by: JASON GONZALEZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 12, 2014 - 5:21 PM

You can’t really blame the Gophers co-captain. The Dutchmen are relatively new to college hockey’s grand stage. Although they’ve had a Division I hockey program for more than 20 years, they didn’t start making noise at the national level until 2012, when they made a Frozen Four debut.

The Gophers are just the opposite. Minnesota’s storied program will play in its 12th national championship game on Saturday night.

Union is playing in the title game for the first time.

There’s little the two finalists share in common other than they barely survived in Thursday’s semifinals and, oh, each has been ranked No. 1 at times in the national polls this season.

Union is a small liberal arts college located in Schenectady, N.Y., on the east central edge of the state, roughly 3½ hours from New York City. Its student body is 2,194, and its other sports play at a Division III level.

As a member of the ECAC, Union does not give athletic scholarships. The college relies on a heavy financial aid system to offset the cost of private school tuition.

The no-scholarship aspect has attracted a lot of attention during the Dutchmen’s 31-victory season, the best in college hockey. Coach Rick Bennett downplayed that, however.

“I know how Union runs and being successful, being a financial aid school, it’s worked well,” Bennett said. “We have a lot of alumni that have really supported our school, and through that, I think we thrive through Union College that way.”

The Gophers, on the other hand, have a full complement of 18 scholarships, and hockey is a big-revenue sport at Minnesota.

The teams played completely different schedules, with the Gophers rolling to 28-6-6 in the west and outlasting archrival North Dakota 2-1 on Thursday.

Union landed at 31-6-4 against eastern teams, including a 5-4 victory over Boston College in Thursday’s semifinals.

“I don’t know much about them yet,” Rau said Friday.

Big first step

The programs have played once before, and Union’s 3-2 overtime victory in the 2010 Mariucci Classic changed the direction of the program. Bennett was an assistant then, and the seniors now were freshmen then, but the third-year coach called the win monumental. In Bennett’s first year as a Union assistant in 2005, the Gophers embarrassed the Dutchmen 8-0 in the same holiday tournament.

“To come back and have that win in overtime was really special. Who knows? Maybe it sets the tone at that time for where we are today,” Bennett said.

Said senior defenseman Mat Bodie, “It was a huge step in the growth of Union College hockey.”

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  • Lookin’ like overtime. But then …

    1.

    With 9.6 seconds remaining, and his team shorthanded, Kyle Rau (7) of the Gophers wins a faceoff in his own zone. Teammate Brady Skjei (2) chases the puck into the left corner and directs it to defensive partner Justin Holl (12). Holl, the hero-to-be, spins and starts the rush. Skjei would say: “I thought he was just going to chip it in deep and we were going to overtime, but he made a play.”

    2.

    At center ice, with 4.1 seconds left, Holl headmans to Rau. Holl drifts toward the middle of the ice as Rau crosses the blue line.

    3.

    A stride past the blue line, with 2.5 seconds left, Rau takes a shot that banks off a skate of North Dakota’s Jordan Schmaltz (24). The puck ricochets into Holl’s skates.

    4.

    With 1.9 seconds left, it’s all instincts. The puck tips off Holl’s skate to his stick. Only 1.5 seconds remain. He takes a tenth of a second to let the puck settle on the blade and lets a wrist shot fly. “I figured that I didn’t have much time left so I might as well throw it on goal,” Holl said. The puck zips past two North Dakota defenders, inches away from their left sides, and beats UND goalie Zane Gothberg (31) glove-side, nicking the right post with .6 seconds on the clock. Holl: “I was like, ‘Did that really happen?’ ”

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