Now that we’re well into our third month without sports, Star Tribune sportswriters and editors have been thinking back on the favorite events they’ve covered. They range from the biggest of games to others that have been long forgotten by most people, if they knew about them in the first place. Some were covered for the Star Tribune, some for other news organizations. We’re publishing our memories this week and today college hockey takes the spotlight.
BRIAN STENSAAS, Star Tribune sports digital editor, covered a “team of destiny” for the Minnesota Daily.
“We’re on ‘SportsCenter!’ ”
Johnny Pohl’s earsplitting shriek echoed into the hallways of Xcel Energy Center and pierced through the thumping beats of the dressing room stereo. At once, the group of 26 newly crowned hockey gods turned their heads in unison.
On a tiny TV in the corner, it was real, cemented on standard-definition video by a late-night highlight show: After 23 years, the Gophers were once again champions.
Grant Potulny’s goal with 3 minutes, 2 seconds left in overtime of the 2002 Frozen Four championship game against Maine set off one of the wildest celebrations the state has ever seen.
I’m generally not afraid of heights, and the infrastructure of a 19-month-old arena is about as sound as it comes. But as the press box shook from 19,324 fans roaring in unison, I thought for a split second we might be going down.
I covered that Gophers season for the Minnesota Daily, my first “big” beat for the university newspaper.
The 2001-02 Gophers men’s hockey team was one of destiny. It had a record-setting senior class, a lockdown defensive corps led by Hobey Baker winner Jordan Leopold and a home-ice Frozen Four dangling as a season-long carrot.
Yet through 59 minutes of national championship game it appeared Maine might spoil the party on April 6. Then St. Paul’s Matt Koalska, part of a dynamic sophomore class, took a feed from classmate Troy Riddle in the slot and tied the game in the final minute of regulation.
Potulny, another sophomore and the first non-Minnesotan on the roster since 1987, soon became the hero.
The noise, the vibrations and the dayslong party that ensued will never be forgotten. Neither will Pohl’s second-period goal — a real game-changer. The All-America captain skated into the Maine zone and fired a shot from above the left circle that fooled goalie Matthew Yeats. The puck found the back of the next after pinging off the crossbar.
It was the 198th point of Pohl’s Gophers career. No. 199 was the second assist on Koalska’s goal.
He reached 200 points with an assist on Potulny’s game-winner.
All skill, right Johnny?
“Pure luck,” he told me in 2011 for a Frozen Four reunion piece, and flashed that “Sports Center”-worthy smile.
ROMAN AUGUSTOVIZ, one of our copy editors, recalls a conference playoff series in which overtime was the norm.
Surprisingly competitive. Back-and-forth emotional shifts. High stakes.
All those descriptions apply to deciding Game 3 of a first-round, WCHA playoff series between the Gophers and Minnesota State Mankato on March 16, 2008, in Mankato.
Covering the game for the Star Tribune, I had two different stories prepared by the time the game went into the first overtime. Then the game went into a second overtime — the fifth overtime period of the series.
How long would the arena-wide tension persist? Hard to tell with goalies Alex Kangas of the Gophers and Mike Zacharias of the Mavericks dialed in.
There were 44 saves in the two overtimes, 22 by each netminder. Any one of those shots could have ended the game and the series. Ultimately, third-line left wing Tony Lucia, the older son of Gophers coach Don Lucia, scored 16 minutes, 59 seconds into the second extra period. With the 3-2 win, the Gophers made the Final Five for the 10th year in a row.
“Dirt was being shoveled on this team all year long,” Don Lucia said, “but they stayed with it.”
The Gophers had a 20-game unbeaten streak (17-0-3) against the Mavericks before losing the series opener 1-0 on a shorthanded goal in the second overtime. That dropped the Gophers to 0-3-10 in overtime games that season.
That streak of futility ended when Minnesota won the second game 2-1 in the first overtime.
In the series finale, the prospects of the Gophers winning looked bleak at times. They had one shot on goal in the first 14 minutes. They fell behind 1-0.
Early in the second period, Gophers forward Tom Pohl suffered a scary head injury. He was taken off the ice on a stretcher as his teammates watched and worried. He was later found to have a fractured skull and needed surgery for bleeding in his brain.
The Mavericks tied the score 2-2 early in the third. Four minutes into the first overtime, a Maverick crashed into Kangas during a scoring opportunity but, after a review, it was ruled no goal.
Kangas, a freshman, finished with 44 saves, tying his season high from the series opener. Zacharias stopped 47 shots, but his team lost in only the second three-overtime game series in WCHA playoffs history at the time.