March 25, 2007
West Regional | Regional Final
Sioux Building New Reputation
Grinding, physical players keyed win over Minnesota on Sunday

By Mike Eidelbes

North Dakota 3,
Minnesota 2 (OT)
Team Goal Str
Time Assists

First Period

1-MN Mike Carman (9) EV
2:22 M. Vannelli, T. Lucia
1-NDK Ryan Duncan (31) EV
6:49 B.Lee
Second Period

No Scoring

Third Period
2-NDK Robbie Bina (10)
PP
2:08 J. Toews, T.J. Oshie
2-MN Jay Barriball (20)
PP
13:11 M. Vannelli, A. Goligoski
Overtime
3-NDK Chris Porter (11)
EV
9:43 M. Wilkins, Z. Jones
Goaltending
NDK: Philippe Lamoureux, 69:43, 27 saves, 2 GA
MN: Jeff Frazee, 69:35, 33 saves, 3 GA
Penalties: NDK 7/25; MN 6/12
Power Plays: NDK 1-6; MN 1-6
Attendance: 11,217

DENVER – North Dakota has a well-deserved reputation as an offensive juggernaut, with electric players like Tony Hrkac, Greg Johnson, Jason Blake, Zach Parise, and Jonathan Toews calling Grand Forks home at various times over the past 20-plus years.

But it was guys like Erik Fabian, Matt Watkins, and Chris Porter, who set the Fighting Sioux's 3-2 overtime win over Minnesota in Sunday's West Regional final at the Pepsi Center by thoroughly frustrating the Gophers with a grinding, physical style, a tenacious forecheck, and a commitment to clogging passing lanes.

The latter was a key point of emphasis of North Dakota's game plan to slow Minnesota – namely, staying in the middle of the ice and keeping the Gophers from connecting on long, cross-ice passes.

"We talked about that this morning in our meeting," said Fabian, a senior left wing. "If you watch the last game we played them, we gave up a lot of 2-on-1's, 3-on-2's.

"They like to swing a [forward] wide and throw it to an area. If you keep things in the middle, it restricts them from doing that because they can't just throw it, and you can knock it down and go in. They tried it a couple times and a few of our guys had some plays on it."

Minnesota scored both its goals off cross-ice passes – the kind Fighting Sioux tried so hard to eliminate – by defenseman Mike Vannelli. Jay Barriball's third-period goal came on the power play, when passing lanes are naturally easier to find. A blown North Dakota coverage, meanwhile, allowed Vannelli to set up forward Mike Carman for a goal a little more than two minutes into the game.

"It happened to be my line that was out there," Fabian said. "We came back, talked about it … but from there, people rolled."

"Michigan scored one like that," sophomore left wing Matt Watkins said. "Their first one last night was the exact same play pretty much. We talked about coming down and preventing those passes back door, otherwise those guys were gonna get free shots."

North Dakota goal-scorer Chris Porter (left) and Chay Genoway celebrate Porter's game-winner in overtime on Sunday evening in Denver.

Not only did North Dakota clamp down by clogging the passing lanes in its zone, but the Fighting Sioux also made life miserable with its forecheck, often sending two forwards in to harass Minnesota's defensemen as they tried to move the puck up the ice.

"It was tough," Gopher freshman rearguard Erik Johnson said. "They came hard and crashed a lot of bodies. Anytime you have two forwards coming hard, it's gonna be tough to get the puck out."

"You've got to peep over your shoulder and see how much time and space you've got," added Johnson's defensive partner, junior Derek Peltier. "We didn't have a whole lot of time."

When the Minnesota defensemen weren't struggling to make crisp first passes out of their end, they had their hands full trying to slow the fearless Sioux forwards, who like to chip the puck deep into the offensive zone and make something – anything happen – once they get there.

"We look at dumps as an offensive play," Fabian explained. "You can beat the guy there, you can tie it up, and let the help come. If you don't have [a play], get it in, because if you turn over, the other team can transition and make you pay."

It was only fitting that Porter scored the game-winning goal on such a play, beating flat-footed Minnesota defenseman Erik Johnson to a puck Watkins chipped behind the Gopher net and stuffing it past goaltender Jeff Frazee halfway through the overtime period.

"We look to wear teams down," Fabian said. "We have the guys to try and do it. It doesn't always work, but it's the style that we like to play."

SEEN AND HEARD AT THE PEPSI CENTER

• Like Minnesota, North Dakota prides itself on being a puck-possession team. Credit the Fighting Sioux face-off men for the team's success in that area, winning 49 draws as compared to the Gophers' 30.

"Winning draws is always essential to having the puck," said Watkins, "[and] it shows you have intensity. [Against Michigan,] we did a pretty terrible job on face-offs."

• The lively end boards at the Pepsi Center combined with the fact that the cages in NHL arena sit further back compared to those in college rinks made for some harrowing moments for goaltenders this weekend. North Dakota's first goal, scored by forward Ryan Duncan after defenseman Brian Lee's point shot caromed off the end wall, was just one of many unlikely bounces.

"It's definitely something a little bit different," North Dakota goalie Philippe Lamoureux said. "We got to play in the Xcel Energy Center [for the WCHA Final Five] last week, and the nets were in the same place as they are here, so it wasn't really too big of an adjustment."

Blake Wheeler (17) was the first to congratulate Jay Barriball (facing glass) after his goal tied the game 2-2 with 6:49 left in the third period.

• Lamoureux made his 24th consecutive start Sunday, the longest such streak by a Fighting Sioux goaltender since Peter Waselovich started 32 straight contests to start the 1973-74 season.

• Minnesota's loss to North Dakota prevents St. Louis hockey fans from seeing defenseman Erik Johnson, whom the Blues chose with the first overall pick in last year's NHL Entry Draft, first-hand.

"It wasn't about getting to St. Louis for me," a subdued Johnson said in the Minnesota locker room following the game. "It was about getting to the Frozen Four and winning the national championship. It hurts to having it go down this way. There's always next year."

• The Gophers had an apparent goal by Mike Vannelli midway through the second period waved off. Referee Tim Benedetto had blown the play dead before the puck crossed the goal line because Minnesota forward Blake Wheeler had skated through the crease.

• From the "I Can Feel the Earth Move Under My Feet" Dept.: North Dakota defenseman Joe Finley, who measures 6-foot-7 and 252 pounds, flattened the 6-foot-4, 212-pound Wheeler with a thundering body check late in the first period.

INCH's Three Stars of the Night

3. Philippe Lamoureux, North Dakota
Other than the first 21 minutes of the Fighting Sioux win against Michigan in Saturday's West Regional first round, Lamoureux was terrific. He excelled at limiting Minnesota's second chances by controlling rebounds or covering the puck.

2. Mike Vannelli, Minnesota
Vannelli was the Gophers' best player this weekend. He set up both Minnesota goals Sunday with perfect cross-ice passes through traffic to waiting forwards. An Atlanta draft pick, his puck skills and mobility should translate well to the current NHL.

1. Chris Porter, North Dakota
The game-winner wasn't the cleanest goal you'll see, but give Porter credit for keeping his feet moving, allowing him to beat Minnesota's Erik Johnson for the wraparound. Porter's line also frustrated Minnesota's trio of Ben Gordon, Blake Wheeler, and Jay Barriball, against whom they were often matched.

• Minnesota goalie Jeff Frazee made the save of the weekend in the second period of Sunday's game. Flat on his back after Vannelli bowled him over in pursuit of a rebound, Frazee lunged with his paddle to rob North Dakota's Darcy Zajac of a sure goal.

• The Colorado Avalanche, the Pepsi Center's primary skating tenants, hold the draft rights of five West Regional participants. Three of them are Gophers – defenseman Derek Peltier and forwards Mike Carman and Ryan Stoa. The others are Michigan forward T.J. Hensick and goalie Billy Sauer.

• The temperature outside the Pepsi Center at faceoff was 68 degrees – approximately 37 degrees warmer than it was at the start of Saturday's Air Force-Minnesota game.

• Hot in here, part II: The first song played on the boombox in the North Dakota dressing room following Sunday's game? Superstar rapper Nelly's "St. Louie," natch. Nelly is a Gateway City native.

PLUSSES AND MINUSES

Sunday's announced attendance was 11,217, putting the two-day total at the Pepsi Center at 33,549, setting a new three-game regional attendance record. The previous mark was set at last year's West Regional in Grand Forks, N.D., which attracted 22,465 to Ralph Engelstad Arena. This was the first year, however, that the NCAA counted gates for all three regional games.

Here's a better indication of the solid crowds at the Pepsi Center: It's just the second regional in the history of the NCAA Tournament to average more than 10,000 fans per game, joining the '06 West Regional at the Ralph in that elite group.

To the young boy, who could've been no older than three, seated six or so rows behind one of the Pepsi Center penalty boxes. He was hit by a puck that caromed out of play early in the second period, but after receiving medical attention, he and his father returned to their seat before the period ended. Coaches on the lookout for a shot-blocking defenseman in 15 years would be wise to take note.

Minnesota defensemen Erik Johnson and Derek Peltier struggled mightily in their own end. Their inability to clear the puck from their zone on two consecutive chances in the first period allowed North Dakota to maintain possession during a sequence that eventually led to Ryan Duncan's goal, and Johnson's flat-footedness allowed Porter to win the race to the puck behind the Gopher cage and get the game-winning goal.

A reporter at the post-game press conference asked Minnesota defenseman Alex Goligoski if he would return to the Gophers for his senior season, a grossly inappropriate question to expect someone to answer minutes after his season was ended by an archrival. Credit Goligoski for briefly answering the question politely, and stating that it was neither the time nor the place to discuss the matter.

WHAT'S NEXT

For North Dakota, it's a third consecutive trip to the Frozen Four and a rematch with Boston College, the team that knocked them out in last year's semifinals in Milwaukee, in what promises to be a terrific game featuring two teams playing their best hockey.

"We had a rough first half and battled through a lot of adversity," said sophomore forward and Hobey Baker Award candidate Ryan Duncan. "And I think that that's paid off and it's helped us down the stretch."

For Minnesota, perhaps an off-season of soul searching is in order, as the Gophers were outplayed by both Air Force and North Dakota in their games at the West Regional, a common theme for them down the stretch. Often times, Minnesota is able to get by on superior talent, but as evidenced by the events this weekend, the most talented team isn't always the best team.

Gopher fans will also fret about underclassmen defecting to the NHL, and rightfully so. Goligoski, Johnson, Kyle Okposo, and Wheeler are prime candidates to leave early.