By Tim Leighton
St. Paul Pioneer Press
PHILADELPHIA — It typically is just a 300-mile trip when Minnesota and North Dakota play each other in men’s hockey. It’s a trip they have made 290 times over 84 years in what is arguably the most storied rivalry in college hockey.
Game No. 291 took place at a destination four times that distance, but the high intensity and talent level that has become a trademark in the series didn’t get lost along the way.
It just might have been the best of the bunch.
Minnesota added to its narrow supremacy over North Dakota with a stunning 2-1 victory in the semifinals of the Frozen Four in front of 17,311 at Wells Fargo Center.
With overtime eminent, senior defenseman Justin Holl scored his first goal of the season with 0.6 of a second remaining in regulation to lift the top-ranked Gophers (28-6-6) into Saturday’s championship game against Union College (31-6-4). Minnesota is seeking its sixth national title. Union is in the title game for the first time.
Holl’s goal, off a shot that clanged in off the right post, was reviewed, but replays clearly revealed it had crossed the goal line with time left in regulation.
North Dakota, which outshot Minnesota 37-28, gave the Gophers fits throughout en route to finishing the season 25-14-3.
The victory gave Minnesota a 146-130-15 edge in the series.
Longtime rivals in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, this was the first meeting between the teams this season.
Minnesota joined the Big Ten Conference and North Dakota left the WCHA for the new Northern Collegiate Hockey Conference.
Sam Warning scored the game’s elusive first goal midway through the third period on a backhand off an assist from Kyle Rau, who was a dominant force on both ends of the ice.
In such a tight game, that goal could have been the winner, but North Dakota didn’t think so.
North Dakota answered just more than two minutes later on a backhand shot by Connor Gaarder that trickled past Minnesota’s Adam Wilcox. It was an odd goal in that Wilcox had made stellar, athletic saves throughout, but he couldn’t locate Gaarder’s shot.
A few moments earlier, North Dakota was skating circles around the Gophers, peppering Wilcox with an array of shots, but Minnesota was able to do just enough to survive and also catch a break with a TV timeout.
Great defense and goaltending on both ends of the ice kept the game scoreless through two periods.
Minnesota picked up its play considerably from what was a sluggish first period, but still couldn’t beat Zane Gothberg, a former high school standout at Thief River Falls. It was the first time this season that the Gophers have been held scoreless through two periods.
Rau was the Gophers’ primary pest on both ends of the ice, testing Gothberg while blocking shots and wreaking havoc on the defensive end. Rau was credited with just three shots in the period.
North Dakota was outshooting Minnesota 24-21 after two periods.
The Gophers were fortunate it was scoreless after one period.
North Dakota didn’t back down from the favored Gophers, outshooting Minnesota 12-9. North Dakota was winning the battles along the boards and the races to the loose puck in the neutral zone.
The end result was Minnesota getting bottled up in its defensive zone and watching North Dakota fire shots. Minnesota’s Wilcox was busy covering up shots, but the biggest stop was a kick save in the final minute with all sorts of congestion in front of the Gophers’ goal.
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