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Gophers must leave semi win behind

4/12/2014

PHILADELPHIA -- Twelve hours later there was an air of amazement (read: "did that really happen?") still floating around Wells Fargo Center.

On Thursday night at 11:08 p.m. ET, Minnesota was short-handed in the closing seconds of a 1-1 tie with North Dakota in the second Frozen Four national semifinal. The Gophers were just trying to run out the clock and take their chances in overtime.

But an opportunity for one final rush after a defensive zone faceoff win allowed defenseman Justin Holl to join the play. He gathered a deflected puck off North Dakota defenseman Jordan Schmaltz and wired a low wrist shot from just inside the left circle that found its way past screened goaltender Zane Gothberg, off the right post and in to the back of the net with 0.6 seconds left.

It was Holl's first goal of the season.

The Minnesota miracle on ice produced a 2-1 win and gave the Gophers (28-6-6) a spot in Saturday's national championship game (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN) against Union (31-6-4) -- a 5-4 winner over Boston College in the first game Thursday.

"We need to play better tomorrow to beat Union than we played last night," Minnesota coach Don Lucia said Friday. "I thought some of our young guys played tentative. It's amazing. Sometimes you're a little nervous and your legs get heavy and you're not moving the way they need to move.

"I thought that we were fortunate in some regards last night to be moving on, but sometimes you have to find a way to win. We found a way to win and we stuck with the game until we made a play."

As the Gophers prepared for their final practice of the 2014 season Friday, the players were fully aware that their good fortune against North Dakota will mean nothing if they don't capitalize on the opportunity that's still in front of them.

"Not many of us were able to get to bed 'til late, but when you wake up you realize you get to play for a national title, you better get your mind ready to go, because if not, you're going to come out laying eggs," said junior center Kyle Rau, who won that crucial last faceoff on Thursday. "So we'll try to have a good practice and get back to our normal routine right away."

Based on the numbers, it shouldn't be a surprise that these two teams will be playing on the last day of the college hockey season.

Minnesota is the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament and Union is No. 3. The Gophers are ranked No. 1 in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine national poll and the Dutchmen are No. 1 in the USCHO national poll.

Statistically speaking, Union is ranked second in the nation in scoring offense (3.73) and fourth in scoring defense (2.10), while Minnesota is sixth (3.48) and first (1.98), respectively.

But there are some differences on the ice.

The Dutchmen are led by a pair of experienced but smallish defensemen in senior captain Mat Bodie (6-foot, 165 pounds) and junior assistant captain Shayne Gostisbehere (5-11, 170). They are both good in all three zones and play in different pairings, which means Minnesota will likely face one or the other for most of the game.

Make no mistake, Minnesota has a well-rounded and talented club as well. The Gophers' goals on Thursday were scored by a junior (left wing Sam Warning) and a senior (Holl), but Lucia also dressed and skated seven freshmen in the semifinal win.

There's also a stark contrast when you compare the schools and their hockey heritage:

• Minnesota has more national titles (5) than Union has NCAA tournament appearances (4).
• Minnesota is the all-time leader in NCAA tournament wins (55). Union has six.
• Minnesota dressed 12 NHL draftees on Thursday. Union dressed one.
• Minnesota's enrollment is pushing 50,000. Union barely tops 2,000.
• Minnesota offers 18 hockey scholarships. Union doesn't offer athletic scholarships (but players do receive other forms of financial aid).

None of that matters to Lucia.

"You look at college hockey, and I said it before the tournament began, the great thing about our sport is Union is on equal footing with Boston College or North Dakota or whoever they're going to play," he said. "It's unique to our sport, but that's what makes our sport so great."

Minnesota has won two of the three all-time meetings with Union. They have never met in the NCAA tournament, but both coaches pointed to a 2010 meeting in Minnesota's Mariucci Classic. Union won 3-2 in overtime.

"That was a massive win for us," said Bodie, who was a freshman on that team. "It was an overtime win. It was at their place. It was one of the bigger programs we've ever beaten. It's all about taking baby steps, and I think that was a huge step in the growth of Union College."

"It was a monumental win for us," Union coach Rick Bennett added. "Who knows, maybe it set the tone at that time for where we are today."

Union, which enters with the nation's longest current unbeaten streak at 15-0-1, is trying to secure back-to-back titles for the ECAC for the first time since 1970-72 (Cornell, Boston University).

Minnesota is trying to move into a fourth-place tie with Wisconsin on the most national championships list with six (Michigan leads with nine).

And Saturday marks the national championship game with the fewest combined losses (12) since 1996, when Michigan and a Lucia-coached Colorado College squad entered the title game with 11 losses.

None of which guarantees that Saturday will come close to matching Thursday's drama or quality of play.

"Going through this process, my big thing is I just want us to play well," Lucia said. "You get to the end of the year, just play your best. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen.

"So I just want our guys to be in a situation tomorrow where they feel they can play aggressively because if you're going to play on your heels this time of year, it's awfully difficult to win."

Lucia's challenge may be less about getting his players off their heels and more about getting their skates back down on the ice after Thursday's improbable win.