If Friday at the Xcel Energy Center taught us anything, it's that a 3 goal lead is nothing close to a sure thing.
After not showing up in the first 34 minutes of the game and being out-shot 12-2 in the first period, North Dakota (24-12-3) scored six unanswered goals down 3-0 to beat Minnesota (26-13-1) 6-3 in the second WCHA Final Five semifinal Friday night. This follows Minnesota-Duluth coming back from a 3-0 deficit in the first semifinal before Denver won in double overtime.
Mario Lamoureux scored twice for the Fighting Sioux while Aaron Dell had 22 saves and kept them in the game early. North Dakota will face Denver tomorrow night for the Broadmoor Trophy in a rematch of last year's WCHA Championship.
The Gophers looked as dominant as they had all season in the first period, out-shooting UND 12-2 and spending the vast majority of the opening twenty minutes in the Sioux zone. They moved the puck and their feet extremely well which forced North Dakota to take three penalties. Minnesota converted on the second power play when freshman Kyle Rau (Florida Panthers) made a nifty move to get through two Sioux defenders and beat Dell to make it 1-0 Gophers 12:37 into the game.
Jake Hansen (Columbus Blue Jackets) made it 2-0 Minnesota five seconds into their first power play of the second period when he tipped in an Erik Haula (Minnesota Wild) shot past Dell almost six minutes into the period. Just over four minutes later Zach Budish (Nashville Predators) scored his 12th goal of the season and the Gophers looked to be facing Denver with a dominant 3-0 lead.
What made things worse for North Dakota was that the score could have been 6-0 at the game's midpoint if it weren't for Aaron Dell making a couple quality saves on Nick Bjugstad (Panthers). In addition, they were struggling to beat Minnesota's forecheck.
The game's turning point came with 5:53 left in the second period when Fighting Sioux coach Dave Hakstol took the team's timeout and got his message finally through to the team. 38 seconds later defenseman Derek Forbort's (Los Angeles Kings) shot hit the post and went in to get North Dakota within two and whatever swagger the Gophers had went to the team wearing Green.
Although the Sioux ended the second period still down 3-1, they tested Minnesota goalie Kent Patterson more in the final five minutes than the first 35. That continued in the third period and the offensive problems North Dakota had in the first period were completely reversed.
All of a sudden it was the Gophers who couldn't complete a pass, control the puck in the UND zone and looked tired and lazy en route to being out-shot 17-2.
The dagger came in a thirty second stretch 5:31 into the third period. North Dakota forward Michael Parks (Philadelphia Flyers), who had previously attempted a number of wraparounds to no success, finally got one past the Gopher goalie. Brock Nelson (New York Islanders), who was held in check up to that point, followed up the next shift by getting a wrister past Kent Patterson (Colorado Avalanche) to tie the game at 3.
Patterson made 22 saves for Minnesota Friday night but came off the rails after Nelson's goal. In a surprising move Gopher head coach Don Lucia did not use time out to calm his team down and get their focus back after giving up two goals in 30 seconds. The lack of a move backfired and the Sioux continued their assault in St. Paul. Captain Mario Lamoureux gave North Dakota a 4-3 lead with 10:18 left in the game and it went downhill from there. Corban Knight (Panthers) and Lamoureux added late goals and for Minnesota the final buzzer could not come soon enough.
There are many things to question and analyze tonight but the fact remains North Dakota deserves a lot of credit for coming back. Dave Hakstol's team never gave up and because of it the Sioux continue to play their best hockey at the end of season year-in and year-out. They're also looking at a two seed with the chance of sneaking into a one seed (being one of the top four teams in the Pairwise rankings) with a win tomorrow night.
What makes Friday's game so frustrating on the Minnesota side is that it was a tale of their season. There were moments when the Gophers looked as dominant as they've been and a true national championship contender while other moments saw lazy play, erratic defense and being out-muscled by the opposition. They normally are the better conditioned team in the third period and the Sioux, a team that played last night, made them look tired while out-scoring Minnesota 5-0 in the final 20 minutes.
However, it's not all doom and gloom for the Gophers even if the result was embarrassing. Other teams have gone far in the NCAA Tournament after losing - Minnesota-Duluth won the national title after being knocked off by Bemidji in a WCHA Final Five quarterfinal last year - and more of the first 35 minutes and less of the last 25 still makes for a very dangerous hockey team.
But at the very least, Friday night was a collapse that Glen Mason-era football would proud of.
Denver and North Dakota will play Saturday night in the championship game of the WCHA Final Five at 7 p.m. Central. It will be televised live on Fox Sports North.
Minnesota next plays Saturday March 23rd in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They will be in the West Regional in St. Paul against an opponent to be determined when the tournament pairings are announced Sunday at 11 a.m. Central on ESPNU.