PHILADELPHIA – “Disbelief. Straight disbelief,” said North Dakota junior forward Mark MacMillan.
Three words to summarize sixth-tenths of a second.
Minnesota senior defenseman Justin Holl scored the game-winning, short-handed goal – his first goal of the season -- with sixth-tenths of a second left in regulation to give the top-ranked Golden Gophers a 2-1 win over UND in the NCAA Frozen Four semifinal tonight.
With those sixth-tenths of a second frozen on the Wells Fargo Center clock, more than 17,000 fans and two storied rivals instantly went from preparing for overtime to wondering if what they just saw had actually happened.
While Minnesota players leapt on top of each other in celebration, video review confirmed that the puck had found the net with time remaining on the clock. With that, fifth-ranked North Dakota’s season and NCAA Tournament came to a stunning end.
In the locker room after the game, MacMillan tried to describe the shocking turn of events.
“We’ve never been a part of anything like that before,” said MacMillan. “I think all of us on the bench, when it crossed the goal line, said, ‘No way it went in before the buzzer.’ Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Like I said, just disbelief right now.”
The play began innocently enough.
With UND on a power-play seeking one more chance to win it before going to overtime, Minnesota’s Kyle Rau won a defensive zone faceoff back to Holl with 9.6 seconds left on the clock.
Holl lugged the puck up the left boards, initially appearing content to kill the final seconds. But he continued into the UND zone and dished ahead to Rau, whose shot from the left faceoff dot was blocked by UND defenseman Jordan Schmaltz. The puck came right to the trailing Holl, whose last-second shot found its way through Rocco Grimaldi and Dillon Simpson and past goalie Zane Gothberg, sending the Gophers to Saturday’s national championship game against Union.
“We had three guys up on the play,” said UND captain Simpson, who remained in uniform more than 90 minutes after the game had ended. “A bounce here, off a skate and it ends up in the back of the net. Can’t really say much about it. They were driving the net and had traffic and Zane couldn’t see it.”
Overtime had appeared increasingly imminent after Minnesota’s Sam Warning and UND’s Connor Gaarder traded goals 32 seconds apart midway through the thrid period. Warning found a Rau rebound in front of the UND net and tucked it past the outstretched left pad of Gothberg to open the scoring at 10:51 of the final frame. But half a minute later, Gaarder banged home his own rebound to bring UND even.
Throughout the other 59 minutes, goalies Gothberg and Adam Wilcox provided a goaltending dual worthy of a near-70-year old rivalry. UND out-shot the Gophers 37-28 and owned an 83-52 advantage in shot attempts, but Wilcox kept the top-seeded Gophers alive with 36 saves.
Not to be outdone, Gothberg made 26 saves while facing a Hobey Baker finalist at the other end of the ice for the third time in as many NCAA tournament games.
“It felt like our group played an excellent 60 minutes,” said UND head coach Dave Hakstol, who led his alma mater to the Frozen Four for the sixth time in his 10 seasons. “And obviously it’s a bit of a numbing feeling to be walking award at this point in time on a good bounce of the puck that our opponent took advantage of, right at the buzzer.
“I felt we played our game,” Hakstol continued. “I thought we checked very well. I thought we moved our feet. I felt we had our whole bench contributing, and I thought we did an excellent job, for the most part, making it a 200-foot game and trying to give ourselfs the best chance to win this game.”
MacMillan echoed Hakstol’s sentiment that UND executed its gameplan to near perfection.
“It’s always tough to have your season end the way it did tonight,” said MacMillan. “It makes it that much worse when you were that close to getting another period. We were having a pretty good game and we did what we needed to do out there and stuck to our gameplan, but obviously didn’t get the outcome we wanted.”
UND finished the season, its first in the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC), with a 25-14-3 overall record and a 20th Frozen Four appearance.
But the program’s eighth national championship remains elusive.
“It’s painful to have it end this way for this particular group of players who are a bunch of just outstanding teammates that has really become an outstanding team,” said Hakstol. “I’m happy with the way our team played. But that doesn’t bypass the fact that our seasons ends tonight.”
Notes: Attendance was 17,311 … UND went 0-2 on the power play while Minnesota went scoreless on its only chance … Minnesota has scored a short-handed goal in three of its last four wins over UND ... Gothberg finished the season with an NCHC-leading 1.99 goals against average, just the fith sub-2.00 GAA in program history. His .926 save percentage was the fourth-best in school history … Simpson is one of UND’s four graduating seniors, along with forwards Derek Rodwell and Mitch MacMillan and goalie Clarke Saunders.