THESE BITTER rivals had met in the Frozen Four twice before. Each won once, Minnesota claiming the 1979 national title game, North Dakota earning bragging rights in the 2005 semifinals.
The rivalry's latest chapter will surely be deposited into the instant classic category.
With a mere six-tenths of a second remaining in regulation, Minnesota defenseman Justin Holl flicked a shot off the right post and into the net to send the Golden Gophers past North Dakota, 2-1, and into tomorrow night's national championship game. Not only did it come shorthanded, but the goal was the first of the season for Holl, a senior from Tonka Bay, Minn., who found himself at the bottom of a dogpile by one of the Wells Fargo Center blue lines.
Top-seeded Minnesota (28-6-6) will play third-seeded Union College (31-6-4), in tomorrow's national title game at 7:30 p.m. North Dakota, the Cinderella of this year's NCAA Tournament, finished its season 25-14-3.
As the puck off Holl's stick found the back of the net, the final buzzer sounded. But after the officials took a look at the video, six-tenths of a second were added back to the game clock. Moments later, when the final buzzer sounded once again, the Gophers celebrated on the ice once more.
Meanwhile, North Dakota goaltender Zane Gothberg, fantastic for the first 59 minutes of the game, remained by the net, kneeling on his right knee, stunned, as his teammates skated over to console him.
"It's surreal right now. We're just happy to be moving on," Holl said.
The final sequence capped an exciting and intense third period between the two former longtime Western Collegiate Hockey Association foes. After playing nearly 51 minutes of scoreless hockey, Minnesota and North Dakota traded goals within 32 seconds of each other.
First, with 9:09 left in regulation, Minnesota left wing Sam Warning took a puck left to him from center Kyle Rau and backhanded it past Gothberg to break a scoreless tie. Before Minnesota fans could get too excited, North Dakota center Connor Gaarder, a Minnesota native and the hero of the second-round win over Ferris State, hit his own rebound out of midair past Adam Wilcox to even the score.
Wilcox, the Big Ten's player and goaltender of the year, played terrific in net for the Gophers. The sophomore saved 37 shots.
"Adam gives us a chance to win and he certainly did tonight," Minnesota coach Don Lucia said.
Gothberg, also a sophomore, finished with 26 saves.
Right from the opening faceoff, the teams appeared much more evenly matched than their records would suggest. Each took turns controlling the puck in the other's defensive zones, but the first period ended in a scoreless tie. Wilcox made several great saves while stopping 12 first-period shots. Late in the period, he stopped Colten St. Clair's rebound attempt from in front of the net with an impressive left-pad save.
In the second period, each team killed off a penalty and saw its goaltender make crucial saves. North Dakota held the margin in shots, 24-21, entering the decisive third period. Last night marked the first game this season which Minnesota was held without a goal through two periods.
North Dakota had several chances to score a second goal in the third. A holding penalty on Minnesota's Mike Reilly with 1 minute, 32 seconds left gave North Dakota a one-man advantage but it couldn't capitalize. It appeared UND would start overtime on the power play. Then Kyle Rau skated down the ice, had his shot deflected, and Holl put it on net in one of the craziest finishes you will see.
This was the 282nd all-time meeting between these programs, rivals from their days going toe-to-toe several times per season in the WCHA. The series, led 138-129-15 by Minnesota, dates to the 1947-48 season, which was just UND's second fielding a varsity-level team.
But this season, with Minnesota moving to men's ice hockey's newly created Big Ten and North Dakota shifting to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, there was no regular-season meeting for the first time in 67 years. It was only fitting, then, the programs met here, on college hockey's biggest stage, with a trip to the national championship game on the line.
North Dakota's road to the Frozen Four drastically differed from that of Minnesota, which knocked off Robert Morris, 7-3, and St. Cloud State, 4-0, to advance to Philadelphia. UND, meanwhile, needed Wisconsin to beat Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament to simply earn an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament. It then upset Wisconsin, the No. 4 overall seed, 5-2, and prevailed, 2-1, in a double-overtime thriller against Ferris State.
Minnesota and Union College have played only three times, each meeting since 2000 with the last coming on Dec. 31, 2010. Union won that game in overtime, 3-2, at Mariucci Arena for its program's first win against Minnesota.
The Golden Gophers will attempt to win their sixth national title, but first since the 2002-03 season, when Thomas Vanek (Montreal Canadiens) and Paul Martin (Pittsburgh Penguins) headlined the roster. It was the second in back-to-back titles for Don Lucia's program, as Jordan Leopold (St. Louis Blues) led Minnesota to a national championship to cap the 2001-02 season.