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March 24, 2007 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Escape Claws

Gophers On the Brink of Disaster for Second Straight Year, Rally to Win

by Theresa Spisak/

DENVER — If Minnesota didn't get enough grief for losing last year's NCAA First Round game to Atlantic Hockey champion Holy Cross, imagine the hue and cry had lightning struck to the Gophers again.

For a while, it looked as if No. 1-seeded Minnesota was once again going to fall to a No. 4-seeded team from Atlantic Hockey — and this one had a whole lot of support behind it, playing just 70 miles up the road from home.

The Air Force Falcons were leading 3-1 in Saturday's NCAA West Regional game when Falcons defenseman Frank Schiavone took a penalty at the 10:02 mark of the third period. Ryan Stoa scored with 10 seconds left in the resulting power play, sparking the Gophers to come back and defeat the Falcons 4-3 and move on to Sunday's final.

It was a make or break moment, and it saved the Gophers' season, and it saved the Gophers from ignominy.

"We had to score on that [power play]," said Gophers coach Don Lucia. "Probably had we not scored on that power play, I don't know if we would have won the game."

Stoa, a sophomore from Bloomington, Minn., one-timed a pass across the slot from Kyle Okposo to beat Falcons netminder Andrew Volkening, seconds after Volkening (33 saves) made a save on the exact same play.

Air Force controlled the play for most of the game, as evidenced by the 3-1 lead they were able to get on Minnesota.

The Falcons scored the first goal of the game halfway through the first period. Freshman Jeff Hajner, fresh out of the penalty box after serving two minutes for interference, skated down the left side of the ice and wristed a shot short side underneath the right arm of goaltender Kellen Briggs (28 saves).

The Falcons got a power-play goal, then raised eyebrows around the nation by taking a 3-1 lead 5:32 into the third period off a Brett Nylander wraparound.

At that point in the tournament, the only higher seed to have won a game was Notre Dame, and that came in double overtime against equally pesky and theoretically outmatched Alabama-Huntsville.

"Being down 3-1, you've got to take advantage of the power plays when you get them and I think that's exactly what sparked our team, got our bench going again, turned the game around for us," said Minnesota's Mike Carman.

Teammate Mike Vannelli agreed.

"Right after that goal went in, you could really feel it on the bench and I guess it's hard to explain," Vannelli said. "But us hockey players know that sometimes when you get that feeling on the bench and when everybody gets into it, you can feel the intensity and the momentum and you could really feel it after that goal.

From there, the Gophers mounted their comeback. Just over three minutes after Stoa scored, Jim O'Brien knocked a puck past Volkening that was originally shot by Erik Johnson and had bounced off Falcon forward Brian Reese. A minute and a half after that, Carman gave the Gophers their first and only needed lead of the game.

"I was regrouping in the neutral zone and Alex Goligoski made a great pass to me breaking through the middle. I cut to the middle with the shot and it tipped off the goalie, hit the glass," said Carman. "I just watched the puck all the way and I was fortunate enough to catch it on a bounce right between the hash marks and it just happened to go in."

With the victory, the Gophers got out from under the weight of that Holy Cross defeat, but it wasn't easy.

"When you're in the heat of the battle, it's intense out there and you don't think about that as much, but after the game, we thought about it," Vannelli said. "(We) realized that after all the talk that we've heard for the last 364 days or so, it's just nice to know that these guys that are going to be coming back next year won't have to hear it again."

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