March 24, 2007
West Regional | First Round
The Kids Are All Right
Okposo, Johnson lead Minnesota back from brink against Air Force

By Mike Eidelbes

Minnesota 4,
Air Force 3
Team Goal Str
Time Assists

First Period

1-AF Jeff Hajner (13) EV
9:55 M. Fairchild

Second Period

1-MN Jay Barriball (19) EV
9:00 M. Vannelli
2-AF Andrew Ramsey (23)
5x3
PP
19:23 M. Phillipich, M. Mayra
Third Period
3-AF Brett Nylander (3)
EV
5:32 M. Fairchild, F. Schiavone
2-MN Ryan Stoa (12)
PP
11:50 K. Okposo, E. Kaufmann
3-MN Jim O'Brien (7)
EV
14:05 E. Johnson, D. Peltier
4-MN Mike Carman (8)
EV
15:26 A. Goligoski, M. Vannelli
Goaltending
AF: Andrew Volkening, 58:03, 33 saves, 4 GA
MN: Kellen Briggs, 60:00, 28 saves, 3 GA
Penalties: AF 4/8; MN 4/8
Power Plays: AF 1-4; MN 1-4
Attendance: 11,161

DENVER – On a team largely devoid of seniors — defenseman Mike Vannelli and goalie Kellen Briggs are the lone members of that lot — Minnesota routinely looks to underclassmen to provide a spark.

But to have two freshmen playing in their first NCAA Tournament game jump start a squad on the brink of being eliminated by the Atlantic Hockey champion for the second straight season? That's fairly uncommon. Not unheard of, however.

Erik Johnson and Kyle Okposo filled that role for Minnesota in the Gophers' 4-3 win over a tenacious Air Force team in front of 11,161 fans at the Pepsi Center Saturday afternoon. Granted, the pair aren't your garden-variety rookies — both were among the top seven picks in last year's NHL Entry Draft — but it was their commitment to physical play and a warrior mentality that made the difference.

"When we got down 3-1, I tried to pick up my physical game a little more and rush the puck a little more," Johnson said.

Which he did. His shot from the point late in the third period was deflected past Air Force goalie Andrew Volkening by another freshman, Jim O'Brien, to pull the Gophers even at 3-3.

O'Brien managed to hold off a Falcon defender long enough to get his stick on the puck. It was a show of strength that Air Force had seen from Okposo all game. He set up a number of scoring chances by carrying the puck out of the corner or from behind the net and muscling his way into a more advantageous spot.

"I just try to do subtle things like that," said Okposo, who set up forward Ryan Stoa's power-play goal that cut the Falcons lead to 3-2 with 8:10 left in regulation.

"We knew they were a smaller team and we had the size advantage," Johnson said, "so we needed to grind the defensemen down low and hit their forwards when they were in our zone. They eventually wore down at the end."

Okposo's line, which included wings Stoa and Evan Kaufmann, was also given the assignment of neutralizing Air Force's high-scoring trio of Andrew Ramsey, Mike Phillipich, and Hobey Baker Award finalist Eric Ehn. They were effective in that role. Ehn was held scoreless, and while Ramsey scored the Falcons' second goal off a rebound of a Phillipich shot, it was during a 5-on-3 power play, and Okposo's unit was not on the ice.

"That's kind of how it's been in the playoffs," Okposo said. "We were matched up against their top line for much of the game. They were playing all the time so, in turn, we were playing all the time."

If Minnesota is to advance to the Frozen Four by beating North Dakota, the Gophers would be wise to follow Johnson's and Okposo's lead once again.

"We've gotta be go-to guys because we don't have many upperclassmen," Johnson said. "We've got to step into those roles and fill them nicely."

North Dakota 8, Michigan 5
Team Goal Str
Time Assists
First Period
1-UM Kevin Porter (24) EV
0:26 T.J. Hensick, J. Johnson
2-UM Chris Summers (6) EV
0:58 A. Cogliano
1-NDK Chris Porter (9) PP
3:05 C. VandeVelde, C. Genoway
3-UM T.J. Hensick (22) EV
4:58 D. Rohlfs, J. Johnson
2-NDK Chris Porter (10) PP
14:36 B. Miller, C. Genoway
3-NDK T.J. Oshie (14) EV
16:28 R. Duncan, B. Lee
4-NDK Jonathan Toews (17) PP
18:47 R. Bina, R. Duncan

Second Period

4-UM T.J. Hensick (23) PP
0:14 K. Porter, M. Hunwick
5-UM Andrew Cogliano (24) EV
0:58 Unassisted
5-NDK Robbie Bina (9) PP
3:16 T.J. Oshie
6-NDK Rylan Kaip (5) EV
4:53 M. Watkins, C. Porter
7-NDK T.J. Oshie (15) PP
8:03 R. Bina, R. Duncan
Third Period
8-NDK T.J. Oshie (16) SH
EN
17:49 unassisted
Goaltending
NDK: P. Lamoureux, 60:00, 29 saves, 5 GA
UM: Billy Sauer, 59:51, 19 saves, 7 GA
Penalties: NDK 6/12; UM 10/28
Power Plays: NDK 5-8; UM 1-5
Attendance: 11,171

AN ELEPHANT NEVER FORGETS, BUT GOALIES AND DEFENSEMEN DO

North Dakota goaltender Philippe Lamoureux wasn't fighting the puck
through the first 21 minutes of his team's West Regional first-round matchup against Michigan. The puck had his sweater pulled over his head and was pummeling him.

"For a while there, I couldn't stop a beach ball," the junior netminder said.

But goalies, like defensive backs and relief pitchers, require a short-term memory deficiency. That mindset helped Lamoureux and the Fighting Sioux recover from a pair of two-goal deficits and a 5-4 disadvantage early in the second period en route to a 8-5 win and a berth in Sunday's regional final against Minnesota.

It doesn't matter about my personal stats," said Lamoureux. "It's [whether] I give my team a chance to win the hockey game. I had to battle back and I had to make big stops for my club. I really pride myself on never quitting."

Most goalies would've quit had they allowed a goal like the one Lamoureux gave up 58 seconds into the second period that made the score 5-4 in favor of the Wolverines. He skated to the far corner to corral a puck that Michigan had dumped into the North Dakota end and played it behind his cage. But the Wolverines' Andrew Cogliano was waiting to intercept the puck, wheeled to the front of the net, and fired it into the empty goal.

Lamoureux's shot at redemption came later in the second, when he stoned Michigan's T.J. Hensick on a short-handed breakaway attempt. He also stopped Kevin Porter on a quasi-break in the same period.

"Fortunately for me, I was able to make some saves to change the momentum of the game," said Lamoureux, who stopped 23 shots in the last two periods. "The guys kept battling back for me, and I had to battle back for them."

North Dakota goalie Philippe Lamoureux rebounded from a shaky start to play better as the game progressed, including making this stop on a short-handed breakaway by Kevin Porter in the second period.

Michigan's Mark Mitera, a stay-at-home type paired with jump-in-the-play Jack Johnson, had an experience similar to Lamoureux, though his night ended with a loss.

"It's tough to play my role when you're down two goals," Mitera said. "You get a little antsy out there ... especially when I'm out there with a guy like Jack. I tell him just go every time [and] I'll cover your back.

"You can't get down on the goals that you gave up. We had plenty of chances to come back. You've gotta have a short memory and put it behind you."

SEEN AND HEARD AT THE PEPSI CENTER

• Lamoureux may only be 5-foot-8 and 156 pounds, but he's one feisty bugger. When Michigan's T.J. Hensick looked like he was going to try and put the puck into the Fighting Sioux net after the horn ending the first period sounded, Lamoureux responded by taking a swipe at Hensick with his stick — he was penalized for slashing, and the Wolverines would score on the ensuing power play.

After Lamoureux thwarted Hensick's shorthanded breakaway attempt in the second period by smothering the puck against the outside of the post with his blocker hand, the goalie picked up the puck and fired it Hensick's general direction after the referee had blown the play dead.

"I like to play with an edge," Lamoureux explained. "It gives me a bit of inner confidence. I know I can stop anybody, no matter who it is."

The Flynn brothers escaped the disciplinary wrath of referee Scott Hansen following a couple of skirmishes, but they might hear about it from Mom on their next trip home.

• On a couple of occasions during the Air Force-Minnesota game, Falcons sophomore defenseman Greg Flynn mixed it up with Minnesota freshman forward Ryan Flynn. Yeah, they're brothers.

Shortly before the horn sounded to end the first period, the a maroon-clad Flynn lined up his older brother for a body check in the Air Force zone. A more memorable dust-up occurred in the third period, when the two briefly tangled in front of AFA goaltender Andrew Volkening.

"We both know where we are on the ice ... and we both knew what was on the line," Greg Flynn said. " I wouldn't expect him to play any less hard because of me, and he wouldn't expect any less from me."

• Michigan had a lot of things to fume about following its disastrous effort against North Dakota, and the officiating was high on that list. Granted, the crew led by ECAC Hockey League referee Dave Hansen had a tough night, but then again, who didn't?

"It's important that everyone understand what the standard is," Wolverines coach Red Berenson said following the game.

INCH's Three Stars of the Night

3. Philippe Lamoureux, North Dakota
Say what you want about a goalie who gives up five goals on 34 shots, but Lamoureux kept his poise, battled hard, and made a number of big saves in the second and third periods.

2. Air Force's third and fourth lines
With the Falcons' top line of Andrew Ramsey, Eric Ehn, and Mike Phillipich held in check most of the game, the team's third and fourth units did a masterful job of playing a hard-skating, attacking style that sparked Air Force to its 1-0 lead and set the tone for the remainder of the game.

1. Kyle Okposo, Minnesota
He only shows up on the scoresheet just once, but his strength in the corners and around the net embodied the style of play the typically high-flying Gophers would use to come back to beat Air Force.

Forward T.J. Hensick was frustrated with the officiating, too, so frustrated that he was whistled for a 10-minute misconduct with 12 minutes left in regulation.

"The ref was chirping at me more than I was chirping at him," Hensick said. "But he felt he needed to do what he did to take control of the game."

• North Dakota travels as well as — if not better than — any fan base in the nation, and the West Regional was no different. But the Fighting Sioux band didn't make the trip. What gives?

• Air Force won't have to wait too long to get another crack at a Minnesota team it thought (rightfully so) it should've beaten. The Falcons are in the field for the 2007 Dodge Holiday Tournament at Mariucci Arena.

• From the Let's Not Be Too Hasty Dept.: A graphic superimposed over a shot of Minnesota's Mike Carman on the Gopher bench with a little more than two minutes left in regulation credited him with scoring the game-winning goal.

• Best little-known uniform feature in college hockey — the lightning bolts on both sides of Air Force's pants. Very cool in a San Diego Chargers way.

• No fewer than 10 members of the Pepsi Center ice maintenance crew storm the ice during television timeouts to remove snow buildup in front of the team benches, beside and behind the nets, and in the slot from the face-off circle hashmarks down to the top of the crease.

PLUSSES AND MINUSES

The weather, along with the presence of one local team (Air Force) and two fan bases that travel extremely well (Minnesota and North Dakota) likely helped attendance here today. Still, much of the lower two tiers of the Pepsi Center were full, as were the middle sections of the third deck. And the crowds were energetic right from the start. Announced attendance for the first game was 11,161, while 11,171 saw game two.

"I was really surprised," Minnesota forward Kyle Okposo said. "There was a great atmosphere in the building. We didn't expect for the rink to be that packed."

Speaking of atmosphere, Denver is proving itself to be an underrated hockey town. From the large banner at the airport welcoming people attending the West Regional to signs in the windows of popular LoDo restaurants and pubs doing the same, this community accustomed to hosting high-profile events is embracing its role this weekend.

As a former Denver resident, one of my go-to facts when discussing the area is that the city sees more than 300 days of sunshine annually. Highlights of the Saturday's drive to the rink were low, grey clouds; a steady, cold rain; and a temperature hovering around 30 degrees. Good day for a pair of hockey games. The weather is supposed to improve markedly Sunday, excellent news for fans looking to do some sightseeing prior to tomorrow's 4 p.m. MDT faceoff.

Michigan's lack of poise in key situations of its game with North Dakota was especially disappointing. Defenseman Jack Johnson took two ill-advised penalties, and forward T.J. Hensick was hit with a 10-minute misconduct with 12 minutes left in regulation.

WHAT'S NEXT

Another matchup between North Dakota and Minnesota looms on Sunday, with both teams knowing they'll need to play better than they did on Saturday to have a chance at advancing to the Frozen Four. The Sioux swept a series against the Gophers in Minneapolis in late January, but Minnesota won the last meeting between the teams, on Blake Wheeler's diving play to score in overtime of the Final Five Championship.